Walking Through the Rainbow: Olafur Eliasson's mist and mirrors

When Olafur Eliasson installed his work “The Weather Project” in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern in winter 2003, more than two million people thronged to see it: a giant golden orb hung at the end of the 500-foot-long hall. Actually it was a semicircular steel frame 50 feet in diameter with 200 yellow sodium lights, but its shape was doubled to a full yellow aureole by 300 mirrored ceiling panels overhead. Many among the enthralled public lay on the floor and basked in the light, as a soft mist resembling a London fog was pumped into the hall. Sometimes the viewers themselves formed patterns that could be seen in the ceiling.

Now the Danish-Icelandic artist is having his largest survey to date and his first major show in the United States: “Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson.” The exhibition originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art under the direction of Madeleine Grynsztejn. The New York show—displayed exuberantly as a single exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center—is curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Roxana Marcoci. Currently Eliasson’s works offer some of the most contemplative and enjoyable spaces in New York City.


At the Museum of Modern Art through June 30, the show goes to the Dallas Museum of Art (Nov. 9, 2008, to March 15, 2009); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (April to September 2009); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia (dates to be determined).

The New York curators have also mounted a smaller exhibition, “Geometry of Motion 1920s/1970s,” that recalls some of Eliasson’s artistic forebears. In the 1920s, for example, László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was making subtly balanced geometric abstractions that expanded the palette of Russian Constructivism. An abstract film by Hans Richter (d. 1976) has an uncanny affinity with Eliasson’s “Remagine” at P.S. 1. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural projects, in which he opened wells of light into abandoned buildings, presaged some of Eliasson’s more elaborate engineering pieces. Robert Irwin’s “light and space” work was perhaps most influential. His “Untitled” (1968), for example, has spotlights illuminating a slightly convex, pearly white disk to form overlapping circular shadows of white and gray on a white background.

Olafur Eliasson draws on these and other movements, such as kinetic, op and conceptual art, but in his own distinctive way makes the mundane magical. With materials ranging from light, water, moss and earth to steel, mirrors, strobe lights and fluorescent panels, Eliasson creates immersive environments that one experiences bodily as well as visually. (The live reindeer moss hanging fragrantly on a wall at the Modern will age naturally and change color throughout the exhibition.)

“Legibility” is also critical for Eliasson—however dazzling a piece may be, viewers usually realize how it is made. “Olafur’s work,” writes Madeleine Grynsztejn, “is first about a ‘Wow!’” and then about ‘Ah hah!’” It is grounded radically in temporality, for both aesthetic and social reasons. The artist wants visitors to be able to step out of the generalized time of a commodity culture and into themselves.

The new work installed in the central gallery of P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens, N.Y., “Take Your Time” (also the name of the exhibition), is a huge circular mirror mounted to the ceiling at a 6 degree angle; it makes one complete rotation every two minutes (pg. 25). As a viewer, you want first to find yourself in it, follow its soft motion, and locate other viewers both in it and beside you. A shared experience of space and time occurs, a charged calm at once disorienting and embracing.

The interaction of people with people, as well as with the artwork, is close to the artist’s central concern. Influenced by the phenomenology of philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy, Eliasson emphasizes the activity of the perceiving subject in community with other subjects. One stands within his installations, feels them and often hears them, as well as seeing them. It is an art that requires participation by subjects in common—your shadow mixes with other shadows, your reflection is neighbor to other reflections, the rainbow you walk through is like mine but cannot be exactly the same. And it is an art that invites free engagement over the course of time.

“Ventilator” (1997) is Eliasson at his most playful. An electric fan hangs alone from the ceiling, propelled in great unpredictable arcs through a space that it seems to be constantly creating for itself anew. If you are lucky, you will see it on an uncrowded day, when delighted children chase the fan in circles or leap unsuccessfully to catch it. (See if you don’t have the same urge.)

In “I Only See Things When They Move” (2004), a bright light shines through rotating panels of color-effect filter glass and casts a constantly shifting rainbow of colors onto the walls of the square gallery; visitors’ shadows add dark drama to the scene (pg. 26). The work “360 Degree Room for All Colours” (2002) evokes 19th-century panoramas, but with an encircling wall of light that pulses through a range of whites, shocking pinks and lavender; pale greens and blues, gold and white again (pg. 27). As the colors sweep through their spectrum, you become aware of their afterimages—yellow, for example, evoking its contrary purple—and the fact that the artist’s program (which takes 30 minutes in its entirety) is arranged so that the colors never cancel one another.

Some of Eliasson’s work deals with darkness and the night. In “Your Strange Certainty Still Kept” (1996), five faucets drop a light curtain of water from the ceiling of a black room. Water drops, illuminated by strobe lights, appear frozen in midair, recalling a night sky and distant stars. In “1 M3 Light” (1999), a dark room is filled with fog, one cubic meter of which is defined by the beams of 24 spotlights. (If you step into the space, you won’t cast a shadow.) Loveliest of all, in “Beauty” (1993) a soft mist falls from the ceiling of another dark room, and a spotlight shining obliquely through it creates an indoor rainbow. During my visit it was a sweep of muted browns and maroons, but mesmerizing nonetheless. The colors dance in the mist and the artist encourages you to walk through them; you don’t get very wet. (In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Eliasson wryly observed: “My art isn’t very market friendly. Who buys rainbows?”)

Eliasson’s art is fundamentally experimental. At P.S. 1, “Model Room” (2003), made of mixed media models and ma-quettes, suggests how the artist and his collaborators, some 40 of them, study various materials and forms. From his many trips to Iceland over the years, gridded photographic suites of glaciers, rivers, islands, caves and horizons reveal not only his love for that stark landscape but also the inspiration it has provided him through its bare display of continuity and change.

One of the many laudatory reviews of the exhibition was headlined “Stand Still; A Spectacle Will Happen.” But Eliasson has consciously set his course against the spectacular, the art of excess scale and dramatic effect. He sees the museum not as a place of passive entertainment but as a forum for reflective common experience that can free its visitors from conformity and convention. (“My real subject is people,” he told Der Spiegel.) This is why he tries to present works that cause us to wonder how they are made. “It is crucial,” he wrote in 2001, “that experience is presented undisguised to the spectator.... Otherwise, our most generous ability to see ourselves seeing, to evaluate and criticize ourselves and our relation to space, has failed, and thus so has the museum’s socializing potential.”

Eliasson was born in 1967 to Icelandic parents living in Copenhagen. After they separated, he lived with his mother in Denmark and visited his artist father in Iceland. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, earned a degree and opened a studio in Berlin. For 15 years his work has been exhibited internationally, showing at the Modern in New York in 2001 and representing Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 2003.

Still in mid-career, Eliasson is completing plans for a public art project that will be New York’s largest since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” in 2005 in Central Park. Beginning in late June, four enormous waterfalls will pour into the waters around the city, ranging in height from 60 to 131 feet. They are to remain in place for three months. One will be at the Brooklyn Bridge. Eliasson wants to draw attention to New York’s water, and boat tours have been organized; but he hopes visitors will come on foot as well, to marvel at the great harbor that first gave the city life. Enchantment lies ahead.

Note: A fully illustrated catalogue is available: Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007).

View a slideshow of images from the Eliasson exhibit.

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