‘My Interest Is Seeing Art Occupy New Spaces’: Doug Aitken on His First Foray Into Fashion, an Installation for Saint Laurent

The piece, which began as a runway set for the brand's latest menswear show, will live on through the month as part of the Venice Biennale.

Doug Aitken's installation for Saint Laurent. Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

As the sun set over Venice last Wednesday night, bare-chested models in billowing capes and dramatic suiting wound through the mirrored pavilions of Doug Aitken’s latest installation. 

Entitled Green Lens, the monumental reflective structure, which Aitken calls a “living artwork,” was commissioned by Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello to serve as the backdrop of his spring summer ’22 menswear collection.

But unlike most elaborate, artist-made runway sets, this one won’t come down after the show is over. Instead, it will live on through the end of July, in concomitance with Venice’s Biennale di Architettura, marking one of the first times an artwork will serve significant calendar events in both the fashion and art worlds. 

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

“In the world that we’re living in, my interest is seeing art occupying new spaces—outside of tradition, outside of architecture, outside of museums and galleries,” Aitken told Artnet News before the show. “When you find collaborators who are willing to work with you to do things that are in some ways extreme, it can be very interesting and provocative.”

In this case, for Aitken, that collaborator was Vaccarello, whom he met during a studio visit a few years ago. “I didn’t know Anthony,” the artist recalled. “He came by with some friends and we had a really nice dialogue and kept in touch. About a year ago he reached out to me and asked if I was interested in creating something, and we took it from there.”

The partnership isn’t exactly surprising. Since his arrival at Saint Laurent in 2016, Vaccarello, a noted art lover, has often looked to visual artists for inspiration. Among his many art world-adjacent projects, he’s worked with Helmut Lang on an exhibition for the maison’s Rive Droite locations and enlisted the film legend Jim Jarmusch to create a short film for the release of the spring summer ’21 collection.

“The idea of the collaboration with Doug Aitken started from my wish to combine creative disciplines across art and fashion to merge different fields’ artistic visions in a unique artwork,” Vaccarello said.

By contrast, this was Aitken’s first foray into fashion. Yet he doesn’t see the artwork’s primary role as a runway stage as deviating greatly from what he’s already done. “I view the show tonight as a performance,” he says. “It’s like performance art. In that sense, it’s a medium that I’m very comfortable with.”

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

A defining feature of Green Lens is its location: Venice’s Isola Della Certosa. The island once housed a munitions depot, but since the 1960s has been slowly deteriorating. Aitken compared the landscape to the post-apocalyptic novels of J.G. Ballard. He said he wanted to find out if he could create an ecological, living artwork in a space that objectively had little to offer.

What he produced is a mirrored, ten-pronged pavilion, whose reflective exterior evokes that of his 2017 project Mirage. Inside, lush greenery mingles with light and mist to create a shifting kaleidoscopic space that reflects the landscape, sky, and immediate surroundings.

Last week, Aitken noticed a group of cicadas had made their home within the work’s plant life, creating a musical soundtrack all their own. Later on, the trees and shrubs used for the project will be replanted as part of a reforestation program on the island.

Green Lens is not a traditional installation or earthwork in the sense that it’s not meant to be finished,” Aitken told Artnet News. “It’s not a completed artwork that leaves the artist’s studio for a climate-controlled space to be seen as precious. I want this to be used.”

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

Until the end of July, the piece will serve as a space for visitors to ask questions about the natural world and its role in our post-pandemic future. These questions fit into the larger theme of this year’s Biennale di Architettura, which is titled, “How Will We Live Together?””

Boats will ferry visitors from Venice several times a day. “I also see it as something that is very democratic,” Aitken said. “What I mean by that is, when you’re out there, you see that the geometry of the sculpture, of the architecture, means there is no perfect place”—no perfectly Instagrammable spot that will have visitors lining up to take the same photo by the hundreds. 

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

Photo courtesy Saint Laurent.

And yet, Instagrammable moments abounded last Wednesday evening, as VIPs including the model Hailey Bieber and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg posed in head-to-toe Saint Laurent. 

After the post-show dinner, which was held in a ruin nearby, a select group returned to Green Lens for an impromptu runway walk-off which saw several top models laughing as they served their fiercest looks. The sun had set and the artwork no longer reflected the shifting blues of the Venetian sky. It had changed, in a real and natural way, which is exactly what Aitken had planned for it to do.

“It’s really this organism out there somewhere,” he said, “between land and sky and ocean and you.” 

Catch the video of the show here.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.