Former State Savings Bank
Doug Aitken’s Mirage—a full-sized model of a ranch-style house in which every surface is mirrored—originally occupied a site in the desert, adjacent to Palm Springs, California. For Mirage Detroit, he relocated the entire structure to the interior of a long-vacant Beaux-Arts bank building (which dates from 1900 and is attributed to architects McKim, Mead, and White) in Detroit’s Central Business District. Isolated from outside light, the installation was illuminated by carefully positioned banks of white lights programmed to change in intensity and temperature. A neat border of rounded white pebbles formed a transitional zone between the crisply perfect house and its timeworn setting. As visitors to the house walked over the pebbles, they contributed a noticeable, and satisfyingly resonant, sound component to the work.
The lighting, programmed by acclaimed stage designer Andi Watson, was conceived by Aitken as a dynamic stream of communication between the bank and the house, so visitors experienced a wide range of consistently dramatic conditions. The lighting animated the scene and illustrated the relentless “hyper-communication” that Aitken’s work, in general, identifies as a fundamental condition of contemporary life.
The overall impact of Mirage Detroit was, of course, spectacular, but perhaps not quite to the degree that the above description might indicate. The house was hidden from the bank entrance by a large, pre-existing vault in the center of the room. This caused restricted sight lines in the space behind the vault and resulted in the house’s mirrored surfaces reflecting only their immediate surroundings (especially the pebbled floor), rather than the imposing and symbolically more meaningful architecture of the bank.
Mirage Detroit appeared at a point in the city’s history when many of its buildings, which have lain empty and outside the circuits of capital for some time, are once again becoming commercially viable. We are at a unique moment when the strikingly vacant properties that the city has become known for coexist with the money—and motivation—to support ambitious art projects such as Aitken’s. The interior of the installation may have enticed viewers to experience the world as a contemporary hall of mirrors, but at a more fundamental level, it was simply a reflection of these new economic conditions.
As a cinematic trope, the mirage beckons disoriented travelers onward to a non-existent oasis. Aitken’s installation possessed a similar anticipatory quality, urging visitors forward from a time capsule of Detroit’s Gilded Age toward a glittering, futuristic vision of global connectivity. But there was a void at the center of the work—the rather messy period of the last half-century or so, which witnessed the city’s decline as factors such as race, the imperatives of capital, government policies, and greed combined to create debilitating social and economic conditions. The legacy of this period is an emotionally charged city that Aitken, presumably deliberately, omitted from his very sterile work. Depending on your perspective, this may be its greatest strength, or its greatest weakness.