A larger-than-life image of an owl's head is projected onto the facade of a building at night.

Installation view of Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, from Forbes Avenue during Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International. Photo: Tom Little

On Owls, Migration, and Hotel Rooms: A Lyric Essay

A few summers ago, the spouse and I got tattoos in Belgium. I chose an owl, my favorite animal since childhood.

As the pale blonde tattoo artist began to shade in the owl’s feathers, I played a game to distract myself from the pain. I let my thoughts wander for a few minutes, purposefully clicking through page after page in the endless encyclopedia of curiosity my mind harbors. When I finally strayed far enough from the original thought, I stopped and began the act of tracing my way back to the path’s inception. Here’s how I began with the owl tattoo and ended up thinking about chocolates. Here’s how I wound my way back via thoughts on small boats and big bison.

It’s good to know the way back.


Owls are not migrating animals—well, not originally. They’ve become immigrants. Anthropogenic climate change and low food availability force movement. There’s a word for it, of course. Irruption: the not-quite-migration of owls, the forced interruption of the status quo, the winter where an owl never usually winters.

I like this about owls. I like that the snowy owl, upon encountering the damage of mankind, decides to leave, to survive, to disrupt. Perhaps it’s because I too am a not-quite immigrant of sorts, a bit more disruptive than the landscape anticipated. I too know what it’s like to winter where I had never wintered before.

A bison stands in a carpeted hotel room in front of a floor lamp and two armchairs.
Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, production still; courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

One night, a dozen or two months ago, as I walked along Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, I looked up. Projected on the museum nearby was an owl, massive and curious in a stark motel room. This, I remember thinking, is an auspicious sign. Owls always bring me good luck.

Later, I encountered the image of that owl again. As we watched its head turn, to the left and right, taking in a space defined by its transient nature, I felt the creep of familiarity. I know this, I said to the spouse, I’ve seen it before. He laughed, at first not understanding what I meant. All motel rooms look alike, he said.

We watched the owl, trapped inside a room, the natural in the unnatural, like the dream of the American West—something untamed and open, now tamed and inaccessible. I wondered how the owl felt.

This is how humans are funny. We project ourselves, our feelings, onto creatures with unfathomable experience. I remembered the hollow shelter offered by motel rooms, the middle-of-the-journey, middle-of-the-night nature of the stays. Who hasn’t been here? Who hasn’t felt the loneliness of this place?

That poor owl, I concluded, human that I am.

Green light illuminates the doors to a row of motel rooms at night.
Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, film still; courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

I saw a barred owl once. Right after I saw it, I called a friend about it, driving as I raved about the owl’s cuteness. She helped me identify the species based on my description.

As I approached a busy intersection, I quickly ended the call. At the light, a man stood holding a sign that said “We don’t speak Mexican here.” I needed my phone to take a picture before the light turned green.

I called my friend back as I accelerated away.

Some English words that come from Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexica (the most well-known indigenous people of Mexico, incorrectly and commonly called Aztecs): avocado, cacao, chia, chili, chipotle, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, jicama, mesquite, ocelot, peyote, shack, tomato.

In my head, I have written so many counter-signs. You sir, speak quite a lot of Mexican here.

My friend, the identifier of owls, told me to be like an owl. Look away, she said, look beyond. And I tried.

Today has been quite the day for sightings, I wrote on social media that night.

A larger-than-life image of an owl's head is projected onto the facade of a building at night.
Installation view of Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, from Forbes Avenue during Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International. Photo: Tom Little

The Nahuatl word for “owl” is “tecolote.” The God of Death, Mictlantecuhtli, wore a headdress of owl feathers. It is said that the ancient Mexicas thought of the owls (night creatures that they are) as messengers from the realm beyond life. The wise bird became a harbinger of Death’s will.

But culture is always ripe for remixing. In my travels along the US–Mexico border, I meet a coyote, not so much Canis latrans as a smuggler of Homo sapiens, who tells me a different story. According to him, the owl is the smuggler’s god, who must procure and deliver under a blanket of darkness. Owls are not about death in his world; owls are guides to water, to trees, to food. Owls warn of roaring predators and silent hunters. Owls show the way to life in the blind night.

An owl sits on a bed that is covered in feathers from bedding that has been torn. More feathers drift in the air around the owl.
Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, production still; courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

I sleep better in unfamiliar beds than in my own. The sleep of hotels and motels arrives quickly, embraces me fully, and wraps me in blankets of rest. When I tell people of my love of such places, most will disagree politely. There is nothing, they insist, like an expected sleep—too many variables when you stray too far from home.

But hunger may drive one creature north, just as it drives another south. Perhaps I sleep best when I’m on the move—hungry and drenched in the unknown.

Sleep and I share a contentious history. The spouse has fallen innocent bystander, casualty of my night anger. When awoken from slumber, I struggle to return. When awoken by another, my wrath yields no mercy. Like any good Mexican owl, I warn of death, and those I love dread my arrival under the covers, in darkness.

My best friend suggests that I sleep better in unfamiliar beds because I mostly sleep in them alone.

The familiar is disruption.

I have always played the Thought Game on nights when I could not sleep. One night, as a child, I played it so long and so well that I stayed up all night.

Night Owl, my mother called me.

A deer sticks its head into a mini refrigerator in search of food. The surrounding space is dark and the open refrigerator is the only source of light.
Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, film still; courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

In so many mythologies, death is a journey. One does not become dead instantly; one takes a path there, crosses a river, pays the toll, finds an escort, descends, ascends, and maybe even challenges a god or two.

Death is both a form of migration and an end to movement. The laws of physics and poetics thus decree the inverse to be true and opposite, as well: life too is both movement and its end.

Home is the opposite of a motel room; home raises children and has a kitchen. Home is the nest, the burrow, the hole in a tree you call your own. And where the motel is movement, home is its end, the conclusion of the thought at its inception.

A horse stands inside of a motel room at the foot of a bed. A television showing black-and-white footage of a running horse is mounted on the wall behind the horse.
Doug Aitken, migration (empire), 2008, film still; courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

The American Dream died in a motel room in Arizona about twenty years ago. High desert heat combined with loneliness—she died parched and in the company of an impatient horse. In lieu of flowers, send feathers.


When the blonde tattoo artist finishes the owl, she covers it in cellophane. Over the course of the afternoon, droplets of blood begin to pool. This, I believe, makes the owl look less art deco and more punk rock.

My skin feels tender, and I laugh at the moment in history. I wonder if my Mexican grandmother, born in 1922, knew that her granddaughter would get a tecolote tattooed on her back an ocean away from anything she probably thought possible most of her life.

There is a freedom to leaving the nest and a cost as well. But the same is true of its opposite: a wild bird clawing at a pillowcase, freeing feathers from enclosure even as the bird itself remains enclosed.

When I throw the cellophane away, I consider all the places I’ve spilled blood—an apartment in Brussels, my home in Pittsburgh, a hospital in Mexico City, and thousands of small cuts around the world.

The tattoo has begun to fade. The blonde wasn’t very good at her job, turns out. This morning I called it “irruption,” the owl itself migrating deeper into my skin, away from the surface it usually inhabits.

But words rarely have one meaning. “Irruption” also means “a sudden invasion”—as in an immigrant, crossing a border into an open desert, finding warmth in winter like never before, and snuggling into a strange bed, so unfamiliar and natural and real.


Doug Aitken: migration (empire) is on view at at cmoa.org until November 15, 2020.