Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Take your Time: Olafur Eliasson

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave at the intersection of 46th Ave
Long Island City
718 784 2084

April 20–June 30, 2008

Olafur Eliasson Your strange certainty still kept 1996 water, strobe lights, acrylic, foil, wood, pump, and hose, 20 x 204-3/4 x 10 inches at base, 173-1/4 at top Installation view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, U.S.A., 1996 The Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens © 2008 Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson, Your strange certainty still kept 1996 water, strobe lights, acrylic, foil, wood, pump, and hose, 20 x 204-3/4 x 10 inches at base, 173-1/4 at top Installation view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, U.S.A., 1996 The Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens © 2008 Olafur Eliasson

It is the spring and it will be the summer of Olafur Eliasson in New York City.  A freshly opened mid-career survey hosted by the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 and  four upcoming public waterfall projects in the East River will establish Eliasson as a household name, beyond art world parameters.

Though only in his early forties, Eliasson has had numerous international gallery and museum exhibitions and in 2003, he represented his native Denmark in the 50th Venice Biennial. He was born in Copenhagen in 1967, lived in Iceland for many years and is currently living in Berlin, where he has a studio employing  roughly forty assistants. In little more than a decade, the former graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen has  become a force. This accomplishment is even more stunning since Eliasson’s work is neither commercial nor mainstream. Instead  his approach  is reminiscent of that of a shrewd jazz musician working in a realm laden with cheesy pop starlets; an  equally poetic and intellectual alternative to a culture addicted to reality TV and splashy drama. Contrary to latest fashions, Eliasson’s work simplifies and can even be minimal.  Its mission is far reaching,  aiming to re-instate the experience of art as something personal if not sacrosanct.

Along these lines, Eliasson creates environments that allow individuals to have deeply reflective experiences and to share these in the company of others.  And though many of Eliasson’s works employ technology, his installations and sculptures are surprisingly easy to grasp.   In a recent panel, entitled The Colors of the Brain,” hosted by MoMA as the first of three such programs focused on Eliasson’s work, the artist spoke of his ambition to create perceptual spaces that can be physically entered and how he wants his audience to experience the work from the effect to the cause. It is  through  this experience that the works, which have no distinct beginning or end, begin to exist. Though these environments are embracive,? Eliasson seeks much more dramatic reactions from his audience than passive immersion. To initiate these responses, he plays with our sensory receptors and nerve system, or  he points out in his book entitled “Your Engagement has Consequences.”

One of his key concerns is color and light. He often works with projections and reflections of light, whether by means of mirrors, water, or state of the art technical equipment Much has been said about Eliasson’s scientific approach to color and his studio is often referred to as a laboratory. He creates the optical illusion of a world painted in monochromes, for example by installing mono-frequency lamps, which emit light at such a narrow frequency that colors other than yellow and black are invisible. At MoMA, the work that involves this technique is called “Room for one color” (1997) and it is installed in the hallway that leads from the third floor escalators into the exhibition galleries. It is the grand entrance to “Take your Time” and considering the exhibition’s title, it indeed feels like a gesture of great suspense. Reaching the other end of the hallway, one feels as if one  has stepped in and out of a sepia-toned black and white film and experiences a strong urge to feast on natural colors. And that is exactly what Eliasson has in store for us. “360º room for all colors” (2002) features a circular enclosure, in which the full color spectrum unfolds  endlessly  and rhythmically with the help of a curved screen, fluorescent lights and a timer. The work evokes 19th Century panorama paintings, in which the audience was able to indulge in the illusion of entering faraway landscapes or historic events.

. The fact that his work often pushes the divide between architecture and sculpture has encouraged many scholars to focus on the theoretical conception of Eliasson’s work rather than on his artistic influences, concerning which he points to sources ranging from Heidegger and Gordon Matta-Clark to the obvious, James Turrell.  More important is that however post-modern, post-conceptual and post-minimal, Olafur Eliasson’s work is, it is rooted in Romanticism. In fact it easily ties in with the works of 19th Century Northern European Romantics, such as Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), as well as with the color theory developed by Philip Otto Runge (1777-1810). The Romantics believed in seeking the sublime in nature. Friedrich’s otherworldly and deeply saturated skyscapes, sunsets, and rock formations, for example, were meant as a direct glimpse of the sublime and a key to illumination. Eliasson might have scratched the overt religious content found in these works, but in his way he is also searching for the sublime and finding it in nature. The difference is that Eliasson distills key elements of nature, such as rain, fog, or color and translates them into man-made scenarios. “Your strange certainty still kept” (1996) slows time. It consists of a curtain of water droplets in a dark room, which is only illuminated by strobe lights. Each light flash catches an array of single drops of water, crystallizing the beauty of a small element within the larger motion and hence, paying homage to the individuality of that element by spotlighting it inside the mass. It is not magic, it is magical.The sensation is similar to the awe that a close up look at a leaf’s spidery veins can elicit. The same is true of “Ventilator” (1997), which is installed in the atrium. It features a regular electric fan,  suspended from the ceiling, swinging through the larger open space with the energy and air currents it initiates. Reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama’s extraordinary “Fireflies on the Water” (2002), which was exhibited at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Eliasson’s “Space reversal” (2007) examines the idea of infinity. As in Kusama’s work, it is with the help of an enclosed space and strategically placed mirrors that Eliasson creates the illusion of infinite reflections of the self that recede  further into the distance the closer we try to get.

P.S. 1 houses some of the exhibition’s most potent works, such as “Reversed Waterfall” (1998) and “Beauty” (1993), a curtain of mist, which through the help of a spotlight is transformed into a mirage of dancing flames, and it also serves as a quasi behind the scenes look at Eliasson’s process. Copper, wood, and paper models, as well as sequences of photographs depicting Iceland’s glaciers and textured landscapes, explain much about Eliasson’s vocabulary and sources of inspiration. He pays attention to detail and  it is in the sequencing of his subjects that he finds his analysis. It becomes clear that in Eliasson, it is the concentration on the miniscule   that enables larger truths to unfold.

Elevated to monumental scale, Eliasson’s upcoming waterfall projects, which will captivate the city from mid-July to mid-October, will pursue the same qualities. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, the monumental waterfalls will be installed at the Brooklyn anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, between Piers 4 and 5 in Brooklyn, in Lower Manhattan at Pier 35 and on the north shore of Governors Island. It is a project that again will draw attention to  the fact that the masses of water that connect this archipelago of a city are as characteristic of it as the masses of man-made buildings that make up its iconic skyline. The waterfalls will be impressive and quite the sensation, but they will also reveal Eliasson’s main strength – the skill to turn a generous gesture into a subjective experience, which even in a city of millions can be as personal as it will be communal.