| “Northern Lights”(Olafur Eliasson)
Art in America, October, 2004, pp.108-115
I'm not talking about the water running in the river. I'm not standing on the side of the river and watching the river passing by. I'm sitting in a boat in the river and watching the water and the bank always being now but constantly changing. — Olafur Eliasson
Walking into the Tate Modern last winter was like entering a misty cathedral illumined by a dim winter sun. The immense Turbine Hall, which serves as the entrance to the London museum, now appeared doubly vast, a shadowy infinity through which visitors gravitated toward the yellow aureole of light at the far end. Titled The Weather Project, the installation by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, fourth in a series of commissions for the hall, immediately became the destination point of the London winter season, drawing a million visitors. And while certainly the most prominent, it was only one of several museum showings on Eliasson's 2004 schedule, which included solo exhibitions of recent major works in Reykjavik, Oslo and Zug, Switzerland; a retrospective of light pieces from the last 12 years in Wolfsburg, Germany; photographs at the Menil Collection in Houston; and installations at the Aspen Art Museum (through Oct. 3) and Arcadia (University in suburban Philadelphia (through Jan. 9, 2005).
A few years earlier I'd seen a piece at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, where Eliasson removed the glass from the gallery skylight, installing beneath it rows of triangular mirrors that kaleidoscopically replicated and repeated the pattern of the skylight's steel frames. Intrigued by that memory, as well as by reports of his success at the 2003 Venice Biennale and now at the Tate, this year I set out to see as much of Eliasson's work as possible. After visiting his Berlin studio and all of the European exhibitions except the one at Zug, I found Eliasson's interests so wide-ranging, and his perspective and working methods so variable and dissimilar to those of most other artists, that I felt as if I'd only scratched the surface. Unlike, most artists who attempt to "thematize" (his word, and a good one) their work in order to make it more understandable and ultimately salable, Eliasson purposefully resists any gratuitous consistency that would hamper either his freedom in making it or the public's fresh experience of what he does.
Having been greatly influenced by the work of Robert Irwin, Eliasson considers his overriding concern to be an awareness of the act of perception ("seeing yourself seeing"). However, by introducing elements such as temperature and humidity, as well as a more overt disruption of physical orientation, he goes even further to show how not only the eye, but also the rest of the body, responds to various stimuli — in addition to the emotional and intellectual reactions one might have when anticipating, discovering and experiencing a new or altered situation. Eliasson's work often involves an intervention which either takes its cue from its surroundings or imposes upon them constructions that affect them in some way. His installations may incorporate some or all of the properties of reflected or projected light, color, geometry, movement, water, wind, sound and temperature. He uses natural and industrial materials, as well as the environments of nature and architecture, to create situations that, while not esthetically displeasing and often very compelling, are less about their look than about the experience they create for the viewers, who, by their very presence, become integral elements in the work.
Encompassing a hall that is 115 feet high, 75 feet wide and 500 feet long, The Weather Project may well be the largest interior work to date by a contemporary artist. Of the three previous winners of the Tate commission, Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois dealt with the immenseness of the space by introducing objects that, to varying degrees, occupied it, while Juan Munoz worked entirely below the main floor plane.
Eliasson, by contrast, sought to expand the space perceptually by covering the lofty ceiling with mirrored panels that appeared to double its height. The only light source, the artificial "sun" on the wall at the far end, was made up of a half-disk of translucent plastic placed in front of 200 yellow monofilament bulbs similar to those used in streetlamps. Reflected in the mirrored ceiling above, the half-disk was seen as a full circle. A light fog contributed to the illusion of a bigger space by making the walls appear insubstantial, more like dark, indefinite recesses than delimiting planes. Rather than the architecture containing the work, Eliasson configured an installation that actively incorporated the architecture and, like James Turrell's sky-roofed room titled "Meeting" (1986) at New York's P.S. 1., it blurred the distinction between inside and outside.
Created at the time of year when the sun is at its lowest declination, The Weather Project provided an environment in which visitors were impelled to linger. They parked themselves in groups on the floor to chat, or lay down on their backs and made motions so they could find themselves, specks as small as insects, reflected in the ceiling. It was a mesmerizing, highly romantic image, but at the same time there was something creepy about it. The yellow light, far from being flattering, seemed to drain the color from everything it touched. A low hum, either from the lights or the fog machines, contributed to the sense of artificiality. It reminded me of a famous study, done in the 1950s, where baby monkeys, deprived of their mothers, accepted man-made surrogates, snuggling up to them in lieu of the real thing. In the same way, Eliasson replaced the sun, source of all life, with a mechanical device that caused people to behave as if they were in Central Park's Sheep Meadow on a sunny day. Sitting or sprawled on the museum's cold concrete floor, they appeared not to care that the disk emitted no warmth, just light. This Brave New World aspect of the project, however, was mitigated by the way it lent itself to a moment of social activism when, on the eve of the U.S. president's visit to Britain, 80 or so protesters lay down so that their bodies spelled out "BUSH GO HOME" on the mirrored ceiling, while several onlookers spontaneously scrambled to add "NOW."
There was nothing disquieting about Frost Activity at the Reykjavik Art Museum (one of two installations in the exhibition, which also included an extensive project room and two walls of the artists' photographs of Iceland). In this white-walled, ballroom-sized gallery lit by white fluorescent tubes, a mirrored ceiling reflected an elaborate geometrically patterned floor, which Eliasson created from Icelandic basalt and sandstone, a construction so elegant and formal that it would have looked at home in a Venetian church. The mirror made the ceiling seem to disappear and the floor become the ceiling, now twice as high. The room's windows, concrete columns and lights were visually doubled, as were the visitors to the room, who saw each other both right side up and upside down. Even without the attraction of the sun image and the novelty of the Tate's tremendous height, people were moved to gather in the otherwise empty, space, sit on the floor and talk or gaze up at themselves. At the opening it became a natural gathering place, despite the attractions of sushi, buttered dried fish and schnapps, all abundantly available in the room next door.
Although the 36-year-old artist was born and raised in Denmark, he considers Iceland, where he still spends several months a year, his second home. "I spent my educational time in Denmark, and my experiential time here," Eliasson told me in the lounge of an ultra-chic Reykjavik hotel, where, in the fireplace, gas-fueled flames glowed from a grid of black lava rocks, an image that would later remind me of his work. "I love Iceland," he said, describing it as "eruptive, sexy, fantastically beautiful and wild in so many senses of the word." (1) That connection is evident in his work both directly — in his use of materials native to that country, such as moss, stone and, yes, ice, and his striking photographs of its unique topography and architecture — and indirectly, since a heightened awareness of light and climate is integral to the experience of life there. It's also possible to see similarities between the repetitive patterns of solid geometric forms he uses so often and the endless fields of similarly sized volcanic rocks that make up much of Iceland's terrain.
Eliasson's father was an artist who created, in his son's words, "pictures on the wall" in mixed mediums, for which Eliasson fils recently arranged an exhibition in Iceland. He spent much of his childhood time in his father's studio, always aware that he, too, was going to be an artist. As a teenager, he became obsessed with break dancing and says now that he benefited from having had "an important period in my life where my body had a strong relationship to the space around it."
Eliasson's studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen (1989-95) gave him the opportunity to travel, notably on two extended visits to New York and one to Cologne. At first he worked conceptually, "playing around with the dematerialization of the object in the Lucy Lippard sense," before becoming involved with Gestalt psychology and phenomenology and experimenting with experiential conditions. He was greatly affected by Lawrence Weschler's biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, and by the work of James Turrell, Maria Nordman ("West Coast rather than East Coast minimalists") and Cady Noland, as well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work showed him that art could be "minimal yet completely dense ... active, generous and not formalistic ... a platform for an awareness that was both spatial and political."
Like Irwin, Eliasson concentrates on the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, or "participant," which is a more suitable word. One of the ways Irwin achieves this emphasis is by making sure that objects are not dominant in his work. Eliasson is not at all gingerly about his use of objects, but he clearly takes care that they appear as utilitarian as possible. While well designed, these objects do not attract for their own sake, but for the contribution they make to the environment he has constructed.
An example of this preference for the utilitarian is 360° room for all colours (variations of which appeared in the exhibitions in Oslo and Wolfsburg and, as part of the permanent collection, on the top floor of the Tate after The Weather Project came down). Looking from the outside rather like a giant snare drum, it is a roofless circular enclosure, 10 feet high and just over 26 feet in diameter. Its interior walls are made up of a matrix of colored lights controlled by a computerized light board, which, coveted by a seamless craved reflective projection panel, is programmed to emit a single color at a time. Lasting for a minute or so, the color evenly saturates the wall, lighting every aspect of the room and the people in it before gradually fading to the next color. The material that covers the panel has no discernible texture; it appears simply as light and seems therefore limitless. There are no angles or corners in the enclosure with which to orient yourself. Your sole experience is of warmth (it is noticeably warmer inside the room) and color, which transforms you and everyone around you as the light shifts from rose to violet to blue, warm to cool and back again. If you stand up close, facing the wall, you become totally immersed, unable to see anything but the color. Turning and looking at others in the room, you find that the effect is quite glamorizing; people stand out as they might if they were professionally lit and posing in front of a fashion photographer's seamless backdrop. The colored light that escapes from the open top and entrance of the chamber transforms the gallery in which it is installed, bathing its neutral walls with reflected light, rather like the afterglow of a sunset. And if you were to stand in that gallery and look outside its entrance to the "normal" light beyond, you'd be aware of an illusion that makes it seem as if the outside light is changing in color as well, alternately yellow, green and bluish.
Eliasson is acutely aware of how each work relates to the nongallery spaces that open onto it, as well as the relationships among the various connecting rooms in an exhibition. In both Oslo and Wolfsburg, the visitor's first experience was Room for one colour (1997), a lobby or entryway that was empty of any artistic intervention except for the placement, just near the ceiling, of monofilament light tubes. These suffuse the space with a weirdly shadowless yellow light that neutralizes all colors except black, causing people to appear ghoulishly that and gray. Put your arm out in front of you, and the sleeve of your red sweater turns the color of putty, and the veins in your hands show up dark and prominent.
The yellow light sparkled, however, as it bounced off the kaleidoscopic reflective surfaces of the adjacent piece (Your spiral view, 2002) in Wolfsburg, a 26-foot long, tunnel-like tube that one walks through on a ramp, the interior of which is made up of spiraling mirrored geometric blocks. (Based on the so-called quasi brick, this is the same pattern Eliasson adopted in two-dimensional form for his Reykjavik floor.) The swirling jagged mirrors reflect light and fractured images from both ends as well as the inside of the tunnel, and provide an elaborate circular frame for the next piece on view.
In Oslo, Room for one colour segued into Your yellow versus red versus blue (a piece from 2004, which also appeared in Wolfsburg), through a corridor between two latticelike wooden screens with mirrored components (The vanishing walls, 2003), made up of a pattern based on the starlike Amman lines of crystallography. Your yellow consists of an industrial projector beaming white light toward the far wall through three large disks in graduated sizes, mirrored on one side yet also transparent, that hang from the ceiling and rotate at different speeds to create the effect on the gallery walls of a kinetic painting that is always changing. I watch as a purple circle of light moves gently along one wall, elongating into an oval before dissolving at the corner. Meanwhile, on the opposite wall, a yellow circle is rushing to meet up with a slower-moving blue one that has merged with a small red vertical oval to form a starlike motif, all of which fluctuates and disappears, to be replaced by other configurations that expand, contract and overlap each other in infinite variation. While the youngest museum-goers wave their arms and run to catch the shifting shapes of color, a sudden blinding burst of reflected white light brings my attention to one of the revolving mirrors in which the Amman pattern now glows eerily yellow before being replaced by the image of my own note taking self.
The use of the word "your" in so many of Eliasson's titles underscores his intention that the experience be of yourself as a participant in the artwork. Described by one reviewer as exhibiting "a cheerfully un-macho and pleasure-loving intelligence, " (2) this is work that comes across less as a statement of ego than as an effort to engage. Yet while accessibility is clearly one of Eliasson's first considerations, it is never at the cost of artistic integrity. Along with Maya Lin and the Christos, Eliasson demonstrates that even with a minimalist, nonrepresentational approach, esthetic rigor and public engagement can indeed go hand in hand.
Irwin has mentioned that he is delighted when children respond to his work (3) — he takes it as a sign that he's truly getting across — and surely Eliasson, in whose workshop can be found the occasional inflatable toy for his and his coworkers' children, feels the same. Both have a commitment to setting up certain experiential conditions without wanting to control the experience itself. While both artists pay considerable attention to configuring the situation, neither has an investment in how it is taken in, or whether it moves people in a certain way. In fact, both seem to hope that each person who encounters the work will come away with a different experience, based on the background he or she brings to it, and the lack of specific representation increases the potential for a more individual response.
Wanting to avoid what he calls "the Siegfried and Roy effect," Eliasson has no interest in creating illusion, and therefore in most of his works (Room for all colours and similar pieces are exceptions), he makes it clear just how the effects are achieved. When he uses projectors, they are not hidden but placed out in theroom. At the Tate you could walk to the end of the hall and look up behind the sun's plastic to see the lights. Far from detracting from the effect, this obviousness makes you feel complicit; he shows you something you've never seen before, but there's nothing to figure out. So while the outcome is formally satisfying — even beautiful, a word Eliasson does not shy away from — you are not sent into a reverie, but rather remain rooted in the moment, caught in the interval between observation and understanding. Eliasson, when he is most successful, uses very evident means to create situations that defy immediate comprehension.
"This is not an easy beauty," Arcadia curator Richard Torchia told me. "Eliasson is not an opportunist in that way." Yet to achieve a condition that is overwhelmed by neither mechanics nor esthetics requires a delicate balance. In this Eliasson excels — as was brought home to me by one of his installations in which the balance was less acute. This was in Wolfsburg, where he built a false floor of mirrored panels in an oversize room topped by a modern, architecturally elaborate steel-and-glass ceiling. You entered the room by the museum's stairway and a wooden walkway that led out to the center; the mirrored surface appeared as if it were a lake at the end of a pier. The reflected geometry of the ceiling, and glimpses of sky through the plethora of windows that bathed everything in white natural light, created a stunning view. Yet after first noticing the construction of the platform, which I could see from below as I walked up the stairs, and then the wooden ramp, I was a little too prepared for what was going to happen next. Just like a film that telegraphs its climax, the piece lacked the crucial element of surprise.
Such an appraisal would probably not distress Eliasson, for whom, it appears, everything is a dress rehearsal for something else. Each piece, each exhibition, comes across as but one of many milestones in a ongoing investigation of concepts that are continually in a state of reassessment, refinement and growth. From this perspective, museum galleries can be seen simply as an extension of his studio, more space in which to explore his ideas and eventually bring the public into contact with them.
Eliasson's ideas take shape in a sprawling, labyrinthine workshop within a light industrial complex in the center of Berlin, where at any given time, six to 14 people may be working at building, rendering or expediting various projects. This group often includes the fatherly presence of Einar Thorsteinn, an Icelandic architect who was a friend of Buckminster Fuller and who, in his role as Eliasson's mathematics and geometry muse, works with him to develop the models that frequently give rise to the larger works. Although he describes his process as "thoroughly intuitive," Eliasson is hardly the hermetic artist. Instead he functions more like an architect, collaborating with engineers and scientists, who may be called upon to devise the means to carry out his concepts, or whose work may inspire them. However large or small this group of advisers, though, the artist says, "I am always there at the beginning and at the end" of every project. Like the Tom Hanks character in Big, Eliasson is in the enviable position of being able to fantasize about what might happen, say, if a spotlight were projected onto a curtain of water — would you see rainbows? — and then have the fantasy realized (Beauty, 1993). Or what if the residents of a city were to wake up one morning to find their river glowing a fluorescent (but nontoxic) green? Eliasson arranged just such a surprise for the residents of Los Angeles; Stockholm; Bregenz, Germany; and Moss, Norway.
The ephemeral quality of the Green River project — an unannounced event that is here today and gone tomorrow — may represent an ideal for Eliasson, who tried to keep advance publicity for The Weather Project to a minimum so that visitors would not arrive with a preconceived notion of the piece. He adopts a similarly bare-bones approach to exhibition wall text, which in many museums has the effect of predigesting the art for the viewer. Eliasson is highly conscious of the methods by which culture is "commodified" to suit various economic and political ends, and the ways in which the cultural constructs we take for granted interfere with direct experience, especially of art. "I want the museum visitor to understand that institutional ideology and display is in itself a construction and not a higher state of truth."
Here his dual background may have allowed Eliasson a unique perspective. Accustomed though we are to the ubiquitous audio tours, pamphlets, T-shirts and Plexiglas vitrines that litter most sites of artistic, natural or historic significance in the West, these forms of commercialization are relatively scarce in Iceland. The country's most hallowed spot, Thingvellir, the dramatic landscape of volcanic rifts and waterfalls where the Vikings first convened in 930 A.D. to form a parliamentary government, is barely marked by a sign (if there is one, I never found it), and its "visitors' center" is no more than a convenience store. Going back and forth between Denmark, with its extreme cultivation, and Iceland, where one can drive for hours on gravel without seeing another person, vehicle or human trace, may well have contributed to Eliasson's acute sensitivity to the ways in which experience can be framed.
Indeed, Eliasson seems almost discomfited by the extreme success of The Weather Project, as if the fanfare had become a frame that threatened to overwhelm the experience that occasioned it. Thus, when the Tate wanted to extend the piece's run, as the terms of the contract would have allowed, the artist objected, and the museum deferred to his wishes, removing it on schedule. In talking with Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, Eliasson explained his decision by saying, "The time after a show is just as interesting to me, because then it becomes an object of memory and its meanings change." (4) When I read these words, I didn't immediately grasp his meaning until I thought about, for instance, how much more emotional resonance architect Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange, demolished in 1972, has for the people of Chicago than does his Auditorium, which is still standing.
Eliasson is both a showman and a kind of artist-entrepreneur, guided by highly considered philosophical, sometimes ethical concerns. When I asked him further about The Weather Project, he said that visiting it had become "almost a ritual," and therefore its removal "preserved its integrity as an artistic project." Then he added, "Besides, it just seemed like good manners."
The Weather Project was seen at the Tate Modern, London [Oct. 16 Mar. 21]. Frost Activity appeared at the Reykjavik Art Museum [Jan. 17-Mar. 21]; "colour memory and other informal shadows" at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo [Jan. 14-May 2]; "Olafur Eliasson, Photographs" at the Menil Collection, Houston [May 26-Sept. 5]; "Your Lighthouse, Works with Light 1991-2004" at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg [May 28-Sept. 5]; "The Body as Brain" at the Kunsthaus Zug, Switzerland [June 13-Aug. 8]; and "Olafur Eliasson" at the Aspen Art Museum [Aug. 6-Oct. 3]. The installation Your colour memory remains on view at the Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glenside, Penn., through Jan. 9, 2005.
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