The Museum of Modern Art & P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center April 20 – June 30, 2008
The piece leading into Take Your Time, the first major U.S. retrospective of Olafur Eliasson’s work, consists of nothing more than some fluorescent lights hung in a hallway. They emit a sickly, single-frequency mustard-yellow that suppresses every other color in the spectrum. The world is revealed to us in monochrome, and we walk through it, stunned, like actors in a black-and-white movie. “Room for One Color” provides a baptism of sorts—preparing us for the series of installations to follow, environments that can be severe and meditative, often at the same time.
Originating at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the show has moved to New York, where, with some additions and subtractions, it is now on display at MoMA and P.S.1. One new piece goes by the show’s title, “Take Your Time,” and involves a giant circular mirror looming over a large room in P.S.1. The disc’s slow, angled rotations create a steadily rising and falling merry-go-round effect, disorienting the audience into a comfortable state of hypnosis. Another room presents a glowing ceiling that shifts randomly through tones of white and gray, recalling the passage of clouds or the sublime skies of stormy landscape paintings. The artist has said he wants his viewers to “see themselves seeing,” and in the best cases, a nuanced self-consciousness emerges—“Wall of Moss” is one such piece. Upon entering a room, the viewer is confronted with what seems to be a solid curtain of rock from floor to ceiling. Closer inspection reveals thousands of clumps of living reindeer moss, each an elaborately branching bundle of feather-light fibers. The connection between what we perceive and whatever exists in the world becomes tenuous. At the same time, we get a glimmer of nature’s underlying symmetry: why do moss and rock look so similar from afar? This theme carries into a number of somber aerial photographs, where rivers and canyons appear almost like close ups of an eroded patch of earth, if not for a few telltale houses.
Born in Denmark, Eliasson spent much of his childhood in Iceland, and the influence of the pure and indifferent northern landscape pulses through his work as a raw energy. “Beauty,” a piece that merits its name, is constructed with minimal components—a suspended pipe with nozzles spraying a fine mist that is caught by a spotlight as it falls to the floor, forming a rainbow. This is the most alchemic of his works, a ready-made meteorological occurrence that evokes flames or lustrous strands of falling hair.
This pairing of simple ideas with impeccably engineered solutions lends these installations a rare eloquence. The work is realized with the help of a studio full of scientists, artists and engineers who work with Eliasson through the various stages of creating a piece.
Two rooms at P.S. 1 are filled with dozens of sculptural maquettes, which are evidence of this process. They are complex geometric structures, reminiscent of 3-D molecular models, formed by simple repetitions—like the spiral of a snail shell or the structure of a magnified grain of wheat—and constructed from hobby-materials bespeaking workshop origins: wire, cardboard, paper, tape, Legos and mirrors.
Indeed, the final products of his workshop are often as socially-oriented in experience as they are in their genesis—to one degree or another, they all require the viewer to be an interactive player. Mystical but never arcane, the work beckons with its inclusiveness, hinting at the utopian promises of science. A comparison with Buckminster Fuller, a figure whose interests bridged similar realms of science, aesthetics and social theory, is apt.
Sometimes though, for all the “active engagement” Eliasson offers, there is little room for active readership. One piece places viewers in a mirrored chamber that reproduces them to infinity; while entertaining, this piece is sorely lacking in nuance. It is enough to make one long for the light and space work of a previous generation, artists like James Turrell who created a darkened room with a subtle rectangle of light that materialized as one’s eyes adjusted to the shadows. Compared to this, Eliasson’s work is painfully maximal—we have no choice but to ratchet our sensibilities upward to meet the high volume of his spectacle.
Wonder does not always equate to mystery. By revealing his equipment, the artist compulsively demystifies his illusions. This creates an interesting tension between the feeling that we have seen something deep, or glimpsed some inner nature, and our knowledge that the whole enterprise is highly orchestrated. But the tendency leaves a lingering doubt: Does Eliasson, in his habitual frankness, only narrowly escape aesthetic over-indulgence? Perhaps we shouldn’t fault him for lacking Turrell’s restraint. After all, as a contemporary creator of sensory environments, he must contend with the effects of Pop Art, the Internet and videogames. And if the exhibition’s host of pleasurable sensations and clever metaphysical gags leaves little room for a deeper point to emerge, then we can at least enjoy the show for what it is—dazzling on a simple level, and a small gift for anybody interested in recapturing the wonder of childhood.
Josh Morgenthau is an artist and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.