Arts & Theater

UC Davis art exhibit explores the intersection of technology and humanity

A scene from a film included in Doug Aitkin’s “New Era” art installation.
A scene from a film included in Doug Aitkin’s “New Era” art installation. Doug Aitken, courtesy 303 Gallery

Want to ponder the yin and yang of technology and its relationship to the human race in an innovative, interesting way? Tech fans, college students and folks up for an unusual museum viewing can find exactly that in artist Doug Aitken’s “New Era,” which opens at UC Davis’ Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art on Thursday.

No garden variety, traditional stand-and-stare museum piece, the art installation is more like a mesmerizing participatory experience. Patrons enter into a fully contained other worldly hexagon-shaped pavilion and can quickly expect to be bombarded with imaginative imagery demonstrating technology and nature’s coexistence.

Visitors go into an eerily quiet pitch-black hallway. They abruptly turn right to see large film screens and mirrors, creating a never-ending geographic effect.

The film opens with cellphone inventor Martin Cooper recounting the time in 1973 – when he was a Motorola executive – he placed the first public cellphone call from a street corner in New York City.

His story about what’s happened since that call continues in spurts as the film evolves into a haunting, harrowing series of natural and technological visuals. Cellular phones and its parts spin, twirl, expand and contract at a rapid clip, and are used to create jarring geometric patterns. These are interrupted by beautiful scenes of nature – beaches, canyons and clouds, as well as mountains, deserts and windy fields. Specially created surround-sound music adds to the distinctiveness of the experience.

Every aspect of the pavilion was designed and meticulously prescribed by the artist himself to maximize the patron’s experience, said museum founding Director Rachel Teagle. It took museum staff and contractors four months to set up, using intricate instructions provided in a 30-page manual.

The West Coast premier is a special honor for the museum, Teagle said, made even more so for the long run it will have at the UC Davis complex which sits kitty-corner from the Mondavi Center. The art installation will run until June of 2020, she said. Museum officials are also especially excited Aitken will be at the museum in person Saturday, Oct. 5 at 2 p.m. to discuss his work with UC Davis students and the public.

“The installation is a special opportunity not only to see one of the most important California artists … but an artist who is at the top of his game,” said Teagle.

Aitken, who lives in Los Angeles, is known for blending film, architecture, and nature, and for creative ways for people to participate in his art. Among his body of work are mirrored houses, an underwater mirrored sculpture intended for sea diver’s exploration, a traveling 100-foot illuminated mirrored balloon, even a specially built wind chime that plays prescribed chords as the breeze cools grapes at a Sonoma winery.

“New Era” was first produced in 2018, and has been shown in New York, Europe and Asia.

In an interview published by the website in 2018, Aiken described his motivation for New Era when it first appeared in New York City. “Like most people, I find myself looking at how the landscape has changed. You walk into a café, and whereas in the past you’d see everyone talking, you now see people focusing on screens.

“Our society has changed drastically in terms of how we communicate with each other and where the human touch lies, and also the sense of complete connectivity. This is something we’ve never experienced before. We’re coming into a new age, and it poses some very interesting questions,” he said.

The art takes the viewer into a different world, he said, “looking at ideas and taking you places that perhaps language can’t articulate. Through image and sound it tries to get closer to that idea of a world that’s completely kinetic and synchronized, and other times, a landscape that’s vastly isolating.”

New Era is one of three exhibitions at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, which opened nearly three years ago. Also on view is the ceramic and sculpture works exhibit from Kathy Butterly “ColorForm (through Dec. 29). Butterly, who earned a master’s degree at UC Davis in 1990, presents a retrospective exhibition focusing on the last 20 years of her work, including sculpture created for the museum. The third display will be of special interest to those who live near and around Davis. It is an exhibition of painting, sculpture and drawing representing the local landscape after World War II, and includes works by more than a dozen artists, including Wayne Thiebauld. “Landscape Without Boundaries” can be viewed until Dec. 15.

If you go to the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art

Location: The Manetti Shrem Museum is located at 254 Old Davis Road in Davis

Admission: Free

Hours: Go to