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Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson

by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Curator
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Exhibition
Catalogue, edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn
Thames & Hudson, London, 2007
272 pp., illus. 200 col. Trade: $50
ISBN:10: 0500093407, ISBN:13: 978-0500093405.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute


After spending several afternoons with Take your time: Olafur Eliasson, engaging with light-filled kaleidoscopic environments, his free-standing sculpture, his series of wall-mounted photographic stills, and his reconfiguration of elements (e.g., moss, water, rock, etc.), it is clear that Eliasson’s reputation as a seasoned and influential artist is well deserved. Words are not capable of replicating the real time sensory engagement with the ordinary spaces that he transforms into sites of wonder. Indeed, it is even hard to say whether the results are art, science, architecture, play, or something else entirely. Fortunately, for those not yet acquainted with his work, the full scale survey now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will also travel to New York, Dallas, and Sydney, Australia (see below). Suffice to say that Take Your Time captures Eliasson’s ability to promote an awareness of the conventions of seeing and stimulates a critical attitude toward the processes of perception as well. It is an effective space for displaying his distinctive energy, inviting the viewer’s active participation, and raising perceptual questions. On display are the six fundamental aspects of his practice: a distinctive use of mirrors to displace the viewer’s perception of both object and self; an exploration of light and optical phenomena via immersive environments that interact with the viewer for full effect; the use of kaleidoscopic elements to bring the outdoors into the gallery, merging nature with culture; a deep attention to and manipulation of landscape referents; a disposition toward scientific methods and materials, including the willful exposure of the creative process; and, finally, photographic suites of the Icelandic landscape.

Among the most tantalizing pieces in the show is the One-way Colour Tunnel (2007), a walk-through structure built on the Museum’s thirty-eight-foot pedestrian sky bridge and visible from the atrium five stories below. Serving as one of two entrances to the show, (the other one is from off the elevator), this piece demonstrates how effectively the artist takes advantage of this museum’s architectural features (much the way the Sol LeWitt exhibition at SFMOMA did several years ago). Saying that this work’s position and visibility invites the viewer in, while accurate, would seem to underplay the degree to which each installation stimulates active participation. Constructed with stainless steel, color-effect acrylic, and acrylic mirrors, two aspects of the construction continued to fascinate me. One is that it evoked the kaleidoscopes I used as a child. These devices contained mirrors and colored objects and when held to the light and turned, an evolving symmetrical pattern would emerge. Within the One-way Colour Tunnel, it is as if you have walked into a kaleidoscope. Ambient light seamlessly meshes with the object, and the pattern alters with your movement. This sensation of natural immersion feels more organic than computer-assisted virtual reality, although no less effective. The second aspect of this piece that fascinates me is its involvement with the light that surrounds the tunnel, much of which comes through the many windows at the museum. Each time I walked through the tunnel, I wondered how much the colors would change from day to day or even as the sun followed its course throughout the day.

Multiple Grotto (2004), an enchanting stainless steel piece owned by SFMOMA, also has perfect pitch. Here, too, the artwork is a dramatic extension beyond the tubular kaleidoscope that one holds. The cones that form this walk-in sculpture are based upon crystalline patterns found in nature. When standing within its core and gazing out through the myriad openings, the viewer sees the kaleidoscopic colors of the surrounding environment turned into a pattern that changes as other people travel around outside of the sculpture. From the outside, it is obvious that the open, outer ends of the cones have different shapes and angles, with some having three sides and others four. This influences the geometry of the patterned reflections that form on the mirrors, although I cannot comment specifically on how. What I can say is that the installation created a meditative feeling (in a sublime sense) without removing my cognitive impulse to know how it worked, although this comparison may sound like a self-contradiction.

More thought provoking than meditative is The Model Room, a collection of objects intended to provide a glimpse into Eliasson’s creative process, (e.g., Möbius strips, mirrored geodesic domes, quasi-crystals made of foamcore and foil, kaleidoscopes, and intricate lattice shapes based on mathematical principles). These maquettes and mixed media models features the inquisitiveness that is at play in Eliasson’s studio. Some of the catalogue essays mention that these studies are often unsuccessful explorations. Yet, overall they express a rigor that belies the sensual triggers within the art itself. His studio, it seems, serves as a laboratory for investigating diverse materials and forms and, within this space, he seems to balance the intuitive and mathematical sides of his mind. On the one hand, the clutter brings to mind the curiosity cabinets of earlier eras. But, on the other hand, when walking amid the experiments, it is evident that the predominantly geometrical shapes on display are strikingly different from his artistic installations. It is not just a question of the clutter versus the sparseness of the artistic enterprises. It is also that the mathematical inclination seemed to predominate. Thus, while said to represent a playful, creative side of his work, the objects do not suggest the kind of playfulness frequently associated with art. I can recall art instructors telling me long ago that you need to know the rules before you can break them. This is the comment that comes to mind when reflecting on The Model Room.

What also comes to mind in this studiolo is Eliasson’s aspiration that his art should stimulate communication. Each time I visited the show I found myself engaging with strangers and friends as we discussed our perceptions and how all of the exhibits "worked." In The Model Room, however, I found that Eliasson himself was the person I wanted to communicate with about the various objects. Talking to others was simply speculative and no one else could say what his goal was with each model, or explain precisely how he expanded on what he learned when he moved his "exercises" into the art. [Similarly, when it seemed that one of the stills in The Domadalur Daylight Series (South) (2006) was out of order, I would have liked to ask him if this was the case. Unfortunately, I could not find this series reproduced in the catalogue.

A short review cannot touch upon the variety of experiences available at the show. Much could be said about the mist and rainbow of Beauty (1993), the spectral panoramic within the 360º Room for All Colours (2002), the smell and texture of the Moss Wall (1994), and Remagine (2002), a room with spotlights that creates a moving illusion of distance and depth. All deserve more attention, as does, the second Eliasson show at SFMOMA, Your Tempo (on view at SFMOMA until January 13, 2008), which features a work created as part of a long-running art car program sponsored by BMW. It is intended to focus our attention on the relation between car design and global warming. This exhibition also includes another suite of photographs and a short film focusing on a series of workshops in the artist’s studio.

The large-format, high quality catalogue that accompanies Take Your Time does a fine job in critically placing Eliasson’s work and supplementing the display. Edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn, who also curated the show, this publication includes more than two hundred color reproductions and 6 essays that survey Eliasson's most significant works from 1990 to the present. Eliasson’s conversation with Robert Irwin offers a glimpse into the practices of both artists. Enhanced by a photograph of them speaking and supplemented by reproductions of Irwin’s work that make it easy to see their stylistic affinities, it alone is worth the price of the book. Several essays reference The Weather Project, exhibited at the Tate Museum from 2003-2004 and no doubt Eliasson’s best known work. Other tantalizing projects that I wish I could detail here are also brought into focus (e.g., Green River and Frost Activity). Several sections of photographs document his career to date. These images are large enough to offer a sense of the work, with many angles and details offering further clarification. I was fascinated to see how malleable the installations are. For example, the dimensions of the rooms in the reproductions for the Moss Wall and the Room for One Colour as shown in the reproductions are clearly different from the rooms used at SFMOMA. Even from the printed visuals it was easy to imagine how my sense of the space would change had I experienced the alternative environments, where the rooms appeared larger and lower than the ones in the SFMOMA space. Many of the essays also integrate how Eliasson has been influenced by thinkers outside of the art world who have commented on perceptual experience, (e.g., Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Varela, etc.).

While exceptional in most respects, Take Your Time is not flawless. Some pieces, such as the site-specific One-way Color Tunnel (2007), complement the SFMOMA space well. At other times, I thought the overall layout had some drawbacks. I missed the 360º Room for All Colours (2002) room on my first visit, found it on the second walk through, and missed it the third time, to my amazement, because I had planned to show it to a companion during the visit. The layout also provides two points of entry, which seemed unusual to me after reading the catalogue. Grynsztejn, for example, writes in her essay that Eliasson often opens his exhibitions with a Room for One Colour (1997) to underline the productive operation of our perceptual qualities. If one takes the elevator, the show does indeed begin that way. However, taking the stairs brings one in through the One-way Color Tunnel, which I think is a better place to start. I entered both ways, on different days, and think the bridge offers a more striking entry point.

Also noteworthy is the degree to which this exhibition immediately brings to mind the Light and Space artists, James Turrell and Robert Irwin in particular. For example, the Room for One Colour (1997) reminded me of Turrell’s Ganzfeld spaces, although Eliasson’s work seems to have more conceptual affinities with Irwin’s approach. Eliasson does distinguish himself from these older artists with his decision to expose the mechanical apparatus so that viewers can ponder how the pieces are contrived. Notion Motion (2005) shows his approach well. Visitors enter a darkened gallery with a floor of wooden planks and a gray floor-to-ceiling scrim. It quickly becomes apparent that stepping on some of the raised planks will change the wave pattern rippling on the scrim. Upon leaving this space one discovers that, behind the scrim, is the apparatus that pilots the display: a spotlight is focused on a large, shallow basin of water and the performative act creates the ripple effect on the water’s surface that is projected onto the vertical scrim.

All in all, Eliasson’s effectiveness stems from his ability to bring you into the created environment. Take Your Time does so admirably. After seeing the show several times, I concluded that the title, Take Your Time, which struck me as a bit clichéd initially, is an apt one. Each time I walked away from the exhibits, the magic of Eliasson’s creations continued to linger and my reflections drew me back to the rewarding process of being with the work. Without a doubt, this show is a must-see for all people interested in the varied ways in which art, science, and natural phenomena converge to create extraordinary, multisensory experiences. Artists, art historians, vision scientists, philosophers, and general enthusiasts will, I believe, also find that the catalogue is a definitive and comprehensive resource.

Tour schedule:
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: September 8, 2007, to February 24, 2008. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center: April 20 to June 30, 2008. Dallas Museum of Art: November 9, 2008, to March 15, 2009. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia: summer 2009



Updated 1st February 2008

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