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The first work of Olafur Eliasson’s that one encounters upon entering the atrium lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is an ordinary fan swinging wildly just overhead. Mesmerizing and a bit menacing at the same time, the work, titled Ventilator (1997), serves as an introduction to a series of meticulously choreographed interactive installations that comprise the artist’s first major U.S. survey exhibition. I experienced a similar sense of heightened awareness when I visited Eliasson’s exhibition at the Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris five years ago. There, I had to cross a carpet of lava rock that covered the large lobby floor to reach the galleries. In both cases, Eliasson sets out to engage not just your vision but your body as well—the sensation of air currents from the fan, the feeling of uneven footing on the lava rock. This is a consistent aspect of Eliasson’s work. He wants to intensify your awareness of what you are experiencing as you interact with his work. “Seeing yourself seeing” is how he puts it.
Eliasson, who was born in 1967 in Denmark of Icelandic parents, has created an impressive array of indoor and outdoor installations, mostly in Europe, that build upon the experiential work of a previous generation of artists. Echoes abound of Robert Irwin (a conversation between the two artists is included in the informative and beautifully illustrated catalogue), James Turrell, and Douglas Wheeler, all Los Angeles artists who during the 1960s developed light and space installations based on perceptional and psychological phenomena. References to Anthony McCall (whose projection You and I, Horizontal (2005) is also on view at the museum), Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson, Lucas Samaras, Yoyoi Kusama, Paul Kos, Terry Fox, and others are also evident. The intense yellow light of Room for one color (1997) that suffuses the first fifth-floor gallery is discomfiting, not unlike Nauman’s 1971 Installation of Yellow Lights, but also creates a purple afterimage in the adjacent space. Eliasson’s Yellow versus purple (2003), in which a white spotlight illuminates a suspended yellow-tinted glass disc, causing the projected images that glide across the room to appear in both yellow and its complement purple, evokes Kiva, a work I saw of Peter Campus’s in 1972 which consisted of two suspended mirrors whose interaction created constantly changing spatial effects. The sublime 360° room for all colours (2002), a panoramic color show, reminds me of a similar, much earlier chromatic light piece by Wheeler. Sunset kaleidoscope (2005) and Space reversal (2007), site-specific mirror installations that endlessly replicate the viewer’s image, are reminiscent of similar works by Samaras and Kusama. Lastly, in bringing natural elements into the gallery in such works as the odiferous Moss Wall (1994), Eliasson alludes to the similar practice of Fox, Kos, Smithson, Laib, Goldsworthy, and the Italian artists associated with arte povera.
This is not to say that Eliasson has not created an original or significant body of work, or one that stresses the viewers’ experience and active participation. As Daniel Birnbaum observes in his essay for the catalogue, Eliasson strives to create what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls a sense of community through the shared experience of his work. Perhaps the most salient feature of Eliasson’s collective work, however, is the sense of wonder it invokes—wonder, he has said, is “at the very borderline between sensation and thought”—notwithstanding his practice of letting us in on the mechanisms he employs. Here he differs from most of the earlier Light and Space artists, like Turrell, for example, who masks the fabrication methods of his three-dimensional light forms. In Beauty (1993), Eliasson’s earliest work in the show, the yellow perforated hose through which a curtain of water drops descends and the light that illuminates it causing a rainbow to appear are fully exposed. Similarly, the delight in watching the viewer-activated changing wave patterns on a scrim in Notion motion (2005) is in no way diminished by seeing the simple machinery that creates the movement in the pool of water at the back side of the installation.
In a manner that is becoming increasingly common among contemporary artists, Eliasson works with a team of assistants in his Berlin studio who have expertise in the variety of disciplines that inform his work. This permits him to be extremely productive, and also aids him to engineer his more spectacular installations, like the crowd-pleasing The weather project (2003) shown in Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Visitors to the SFMOMA show get a sense of Eliasson’s experimental approach to artmaking in Model room (2003), which contains shelves of mathematical models, geodesic domes, prismatic spheres, kaleidoscopes, and the like. Kaleidoscopes, invented in the early nineteenth century, fascinate Eliasson—he has frequently made room-sized versions of them. In a work created especially for SFMOMA, One-way colour tunnel, Eliasson lined the top floor bridge that spans the museum’s atrium with a lattice of angled and colored glass panels that create different prismatic effects depending on the direction one walks through it.
Eliasson’s most personal works in the show are the photographs he takes during summers he spends in Iceland. These taxonomic suites are hung in grids and depict natural phenomena such as waterfalls, islands, and rock caves. For viewers, they act as quiet counterpoints to Eliasson’s immersive environments.
Concurrent with Take your time is Your tempo, the only U.S. presentation of Your mobile expectations: BMW HrR project (2007). Organized by SFMOMA’s curator of architecture and design, Henry Urbach, this most recent addition to BMW’s Art Car Program features Eliasson’s extreme alteration of BMW’s hydrogen-powered race car, the shell of which he replaced with a steel-mesh skin, steel panels, and layers of ice. Viewers don blankets to enter a specially built freezer powered by renewable geothermal energy to see the car, hardly recognizable as such, and to meditate on, in Urbach’s words, the car as “allegory of our postindustrial moment, at once wondrous and unsettling.” Taking on such a commission is consistent with Eliasson’s embrace of design and architecture as real-world extensions of his fine-art practice. Developed with a group of architects, scholars, scientists, and artists (excerpts of two of their meetings are shown in an accompanying documentary film), the ice car draws attention to the effects of carbon emissions on climate. Other artists have used the automobile to comment on its dual attraction and destructive potential, noticeably the collaborative Ant Farm who in 1975 drove their customized Cadillac, dubbed the Phantom Dream Car, through a pyramid of flaming television sets in a spectacular performance documented in their video Media Burn. But today the car has become an even more potent symbol of our dangerous disregard of the very environment that sustains us.
Accompanying the car is Eliasson’s The glacier mill series (2007), which underscores the issue of global warming. Taken by the artist from a ladder cantilevered off the roof of his SUV, this set of thirty photographs depicts holes in Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier that are a result of melting water.
Eliasson strives to engage and delight his audience whether they be sophisticated art lovers or not. In this he succeeds masterfully.
Adjunct Curator, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
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