The Olaf Eliasson Phenomenon
Art world insiders have a peculiar relationship with the notion of mainstream popularity. On one hand they hope that art as a cultural force can have a significant impact on the consciousness of a larger public; and on the other they disparage anything that seems like pandering to a general audience. So what’s an ambitious artist to do? For better or for worse, this conflict hardly arises; rarely are artists sought out directly as cultural oracles by the greater public. In a recent New York Times story, Mia Fineman reported that mass market advertising has begun to appropriate the work of artists who have spent a lifetime of appropriating images from popular culture, as seen in the close resemblance between a Christian Marclay video and an Apple iPhone spot broadcast during the Academy Awards. I’m embarrassed to admit my ambivalence upon reading the story, coming down somewhere between indignation over the blatant exploitation by advertisers and pride about the fact that they still wanted us.
These issues lie at the heart of the Olafur Eliasson phenomenon that has drifted over New York and remained like a stalled weather system for the past six months. Not since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Gates” have we seen so much attention given to an artist in the popular press. And not since the “Gates” have we experienced such mixed feelings about that artist’s success. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Eliasson seemed poised for his literal moment in the sun. His work possesses the rare ability to translate phenomenological issues into crowd-pleasing spectacles. This is because Eliasson’s work explores perception through the majesty of natural phenomena—content that is readily comprehensible to anyone with a pair of eyes and a back door. He dyed a river green in Bremen, Germany in 1998, and his 2003 “Weather Project” created an eerily synthetic sunset inside the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London; not the kind of work you need classes in art theory to appreciate.
This past spring, with Take your time, a major retrospective of Eliasson’s work mounted jointly at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1, the natives grew restless. American viewers had never been privy to so much of Eliasson’s sensorially potent, site-specific work in a single exhibition. Opinions about the show soon circulated like cheap gossip, gauntlets were thrown and critical lines were drawn. Take your time was indeed a retinal decathlon, with every room and hallway at MoMA featuring another disorienting challenge to one’s senses. “Room for one color” (1997) bathed a corridor in a dense, psychedelic soup of yellow light, reducing all other colors to tones of gray. If one didn’t know any better, it might have seemed that the art’s importance grew in proportion to its wattage. But other pieces were hard to criticize. The eponymous work, “Take your time” at P.S.1, featured a large ceiling-installed mirror that encouraged viewers to lie on the floor and view the room from a bird’s-eye perspective. When I was there, people were throwing articles of clothing to each other while lying on their backs, using only the reflection on the ceiling to direct their aim. The sculpture was relational, perceptually intriguing, and clever in the best sense. Despite relying heavily on the technical, Eliasson’s work never hides behind it. His armatures and processes are always exposed to the viewer; the lamps and projectors are always out in the open. But his visual magic is often potent enough to lull us into forgetting those secrets by the time we disengage from his work.
Early this summer, as the jury was still out on Take your time, anticipation began to swirl around his biggest public project to date. Eliasson’s “New York City Waterfalls” were suddenly the subject of articles in Time and New York magazines, and of countless morning talk shows. Hackles tend to be raised whenever an artist quickly rises from obscurity to the mainstream, but in Eliasson’s case it was more than sour grapes or contrarian hostility. Eliasson’s 15.5 million-dollar project, funded with private money from the Public Art Fund, had received the blessing of Michael Bloomberg (as well as a generous helping of his own cash), which certainly helped grease the bureaucratic gears, making it easier to secure building permits and expedite what would otherwise have been a Byzantine logistical process. The art world has held a longstanding skepticism of big-money projects that are nakedly exploited to promote other products—in this case, the City of New York as a tourist destination. Michael Bloomberg speculated that the “Falls” would pump some 55 million dollars into the city. Unlike most public artworks, the project’s press release acknowledged the contribution of non-art interests such as Consolidated Edison, Tishman Construction and the elite corporate law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Right off the bat, the piece seemed more business than art. Soon after this announcement, the “Falls” were unveiled to the public.
The consensus: the waterfalls were underwhelming. One person with whom I spoke noted that against the gothic majesty of New York’s skyline, the six-story scaffoldings looked like unfinished construction projects rising from the water, and the cascades themselves against the churning river looked like leaky water mains. Eliasson has insisted that the purpose of including the very visible scaffoldings was, as in his other projects, to reveal the works’ structures and supports. Despite this caveat, it was soon the local sentiment that Eliasson missed a rare opportunity to convert those outside the art world choir. This disappointment soon began to show up in the press. Lynn Yeager wrote in the Village Voice that “Eliasson somehow conned the City of New York” into letting him complete the project. In a deeper and more nuanced discussion of the issue, the Brooklyn Rail’s own Claudia La Rocco, as a guest on WNYC’s “Morning Edition,” noted, “it’s amazing how something so massive can be so unobtrusive and polite…they are in a no man’s land; they’re big and removed so we can’t really interact with them on a human to human scale but they’re not really big enough to compete with what’s around it.” Soterios Johnson, the show’s host, agreed with a reader’s comment posted on La Rocco’s blog, Culturist, that the piece was indeed “anemic.”
Maybe the most revealing litmus test of native public opinion was a show entitled, It’s About Time, Man, a copycat exhibition of Eliasson’s art at Repetti in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then ironic imitation is the least sincere form of criticism. The show takes on the Olafur Eliasson ouevre armed with little more than chewing gum and duct tape (and more than a few box fans). Speaking to curator William McMillan about the show, he indicated that there was no overt attempt to trivialize or disparage Eliasson, but still, seeing all those fake versions of his work in Repetti’s derelict three-story space, it was hard to overlook the collective urge to bring the artist down to earth. Interviews with several participants, featured on YouTube, describe a range of concerns and motivations for reproducing it. Melissa Barrett Lundquist, who replicated Eliasson’s “Weather Project” in a grimy third-floor bathroom, sees her contribution more as a low-budget homage than a gut punch. She cites the impossibility of recreating anything on the scale of his work, and so she had to attack the problem in a humorous way. Other artists, such as Brooklyn’s David Shull, whose recreation of “Take your time” was housed in what looks like a homemade prison shower stall and rotated with the help of a repurposed disco ball motor, were more dubious, expressing their skepticism of Eliasson’s attempt to capture scientific beauty.
Despite the stated intentions of the curator and the artists, anyone who had the privilege to experience It’s About Time, Man could hardly miss its arch tone. First, in stark contrast to the perfection of the displays at MoMA and P.S.1, the Repetti show was held in a humble, pre-renovation three-story brownstone. To call the environment “stripped down” would be a gross understatement. The venue was, and is, literally falling apart. Dips in the floor and sags in the ceiling, countless water stains and microbiological eruptions, and overall patina of muck create the closest equivalent to an organic environment that a building can make. Viewers in fact were asked to sign a release before going upstairs, where Lara Kohl’s wall of box fans sucked air though the broken windows and around the crumbling interior. The fans’ brooding white noise created as surreal an experience as anything Eliasson managed at MoMA, and set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. With its intervention of strange, vaguely Eliasson-esque pieces into a space that could be considered an environmental artwork in itself, It’s About Time, Man was without question one of the most convincing shows I’ve experienced this year. My senses and mind were in perfect balance at Repetti, looking at everything twice and each time anew. There were moments in Take Your Time, and especially at MoMA, when my overworked senses labored to send information to my brain. Eliasson works the sensorial and the spatial like an impresario, but the work at Repetti dealt with “this space” and “this experience” far more effectively.
It’s often said that an artist can’t stir up significant hostility without being successful at some level. It is telling that such a critically-minded show as It’s About Time, Man chose not to significantly embellish Eliasson’s basic ideas, but rather to subvert the context of his work. The nature of the show’s criticism revolved entirely around the selection, placement, scale and production of intact ideas. This presumes a certain respect for the concepts guiding Eliasson’s work.
This discussion amounts to a referendum on several important issues now facing New York artists. As ever-higher rents push them farther into the outer boroughs there is a sense that the organic vitality of art is being challenged by something that looks more and more like a conventional, market-driven industry. Of course, rents aren’t directly controlled by the machinations of Chelsea, but there is a real fear that the art world is getting top-heavy; subsidizing the careers of a few and tossing out the rest. Bigger isn’t necessarily worse, but if it is going to be bigger, it should have the integrity to demonstrate art’s potential to a wider public without leaving them simply with the feeling that they just witnessed a fireworks display or a dolphin show. La Rocco said it perfectly on “Morning Edition”: art is better suited to deepen than to broaden the relationship of viewers to their environment. This could be the reason Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Gates” didn’t stir the same amount of concern as the “Falls.” If the “Gates” were in part a calculated attempt to draw visitors for financial reasons it didn’t feel that way in effect, partly because the team has a long history of doing that kind of work, and, more crucially, because the experience enriched the natural setting of Central Park, cultivating a deeper relationship between the viewers and the landscape.
Modern art has, for the most part, been a solitary activity. Recently, collaboration has become more prevalent, bringing with it a relational esthetic that has the potential to take art from an isolated practice to an egalitarian (hopefully) social exchange. But this needs to be an exchange and not just a collection of interested bodies. Like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, Olafur Eliasson has a large studio employing 30 engineers to help realize his ideas—and, certainly, to meet the demand for them. This level of production stirs concerns about whether the artistic community will be viewed by the market as a farm system to harvest talent for spectacles, where the equity that art has built up in the public consciousness will be mortgaged by non-art interests to create projects that function primarily as entertainment.
All this said, I think it’s important to recognize that we’re always harder on those we love. I’ve personally admired Eliasson’s work in the past. When I saw his kinked hose rainbow years ago, I thought it was incredible and would be remiss to write him off because he started playing stadiums instead of coffee houses. Artists and insiders are justified in their vigilance in the case of the “Falls,” but it might be a bit harsh to consider what Eliasson is doing as “pandering” to public desire, as a friend of mine characterized it recently. I told him in turn that you can’t criticize Claes Oldenburg for pandering to pigeons because they choose to defecate on his work, and that it might be easier to teach the “pigeons” what is fair game and what is not, that is, about art’s potential, than to blame a twenty-foot high shuttlecock for doing the best it can to capture the public’s imagination…even if he did hit it into the net this time.