The practice of Doug Aitken is most widely recognised as immersive, collaborative and engaged with both the art world and the wider world. This approach results in works in a variety of media such as video, sculpture and photography.
Aitken is perhaps best known for his 'nomadic happening', Station to Station (2013) in which he invited artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Patti Smith and Urs Fischer, amongst others, to participate in a cross-country nine-carriage train ride from New York to California, spontaneously collaborating to create art, food and music along the way. There were nine stops, and a 'happening' (an art-related performance event) occurred at each stop. The train was covered in LED screens; along the way a visual light installation continuously played. The project was intended as an alternative art experience. Instead of being held in a gallery or institution, the art travelled, grew and became a presence in every moment of the artist's life. In 2015, this event recreated itself at the Barbican Centre in the form of Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening. Described as a 'living exhibition', over its month-long existence it played host to more than 100 contemporary artists, musicians, dancers, filmmakers and designers.
In late-2016, during his solo exhibition Doug Aitken: Electric Earth (10 September 2016-15 January 2017) at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Aitken installed Underwater Pavilions off the coast of Catalina Island, California. Underwater Pavilions consisted of three hexagon-shaped spheres submerged between five and 50 feet underwater. Viewers had to dive to view the work and could swim both in and around the spheres. The spheres contained panels sculpted from artificial rock and mirror. The mirrored surfaces induced a kaleidoscopic effect; in an interview with The New York Times Aitken remarked on the experience of this effect, 'I could see the ocean floor above me and the sun below me'. The objects' shiny and multifarious surfaces cause them to seem continuously in flux—affected by tides, sunlight, sun, fish and divers. Rather than a sculpture or monument, they are living things. The work is based on Aitken's philosophy that to make art living, one should immerse it in the real world and allow it to experience the flux of nature.
In 2017, Aitken participated in Desert X—the art biennial of Palm Springs, California, featuring 16 artists including Gabriel Kuri, Claudia Comte and Armando Lerma. For the event, Aitken created Mirage—a ranch-style home in Coachella Valley covered on every surface by mirrors. The ranch style of architecture was developed in the 1920s and 1930s by combining Frank Lloyd Wright's modernist architecture and traditional western ranches. After World War II, the style boomed and became a fixture of the Californian landscape. By turning the quintessential Californian architecture into a house of mirrors, Mirage may change with its surrounding nature—blending in but perhaps standing out even more so in the process. In the struggle between the natural and the artificial, the house plays on both sides. Aitken works with the materiality of the suburban west—not from a socio-economic standpoint, but from that of formalism—illustrating the vast power of the landscape and the history of architecture's attempted encroachment upon it.