The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago
, presents the first U.S. full-scale survey of the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The exhibition spans Eliassons diverse range of artistic production from 1993 to the present, including installations, large-scale immersive environments, freestanding sculpture, and photography. Take your time: Olafur Eliasson was organized by the MCAs Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn, when she was Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and is on view May 1 to September 13, 2009.
From light-filled environments to walk-in kaleidoscopes, Eliassons uniquely participatory works offer alluring spaces that harness optical cognition and meteorological elements; examine the intersection of nature and science; and explore the boundary between the organic and the artificial. Having been raised partly in Iceland, Eliassons practice is informed by that countrys primordial landscape and spectacular weather. He recontextualizes elements such as light, water, ice, fog, arctic moss, and lava rock to create altogether new circumstances that shift the viewers consciousness and sense of place. By extension, his work prompts an intensive engagement with the world outside and a fresh consideration of everyday life.
Take your time: Olafur Eliasson allows viewers to understand the range of his methodology, with a carefully considered layout of the exhibition to maximize the viewers experience and demonstrate fundamental aspects of his practice: a distinctive use of mirrors to displace the viewers perception of both object and self; an exploration of light and optical phenomena via immersive environments that rely upon the viewer for full effect; the use of kaleidoscopic elements to bring the outdoors into the gallery; merging nature with culture; a deep sensitivity and incorporation of the landscape, particularly that of Iceland; and a disposition toward scientific methods and materials, including an emphasis on transparency in the creative process.
With his many work titles that use the possessive pronoun your, Eliasson openly calls for the viewer to be an active participant. Many works require a kinetic involvement that implicates senses beyond mere sight: A blast of air, the warmth of a room, or the smell of arctic moss, for example, can provoke an encounter that is physical as well as visual. Eliasson describes his artworks as devices for the experience of reality, and indeed his projects compel heightened experience, self-awareness, and action.
In the process of interacting with this work, the mind becomes conscious of its own cognition. Seeing yourself seeing is how Eliasson describes this effect, and this idea is key to all of his work.
As formally diverse as his work is, it centers fundamentally on an actively engaged spectator, casting the viewer in a principal role in the workings of his projects, notes Madeleine Grynsztejn. Involving the viewer as a co-producer of the work is Eliassons central tactic for encouraging individual awareness, reflection, and ultimately a greater consciousness of the larger workings of our world.
One of Eliassons earliest and perhaps most affecting allusions to the spectator-as-subject is Beauty (1993). In a darkened room, a prismatic spotlight shines though a curtain of fine mist released from a perforated hose mounted on the ceiling. Depending on ones position in the gallery, a perfect rainbow appears or fades, and the viewers involvement goes beyond the merely visual as moisture in the air condenses on the skin. Intrinsically subjective, Beauty is entirely the result of a physiological process occurring in the eye of the individual spectator, as the rainbows appearance is entirely dependent upon and unique to each viewers position in space.
Another example of Eliassons use of natural elements is found in Moss wall (1994), a floor-to-ceiling installation of reindeer moss from the Arctic. A hidden wood-and-wire structure anchors the moss to the wall, creating a living curtain in the gallery. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the large expanse of moss changes shape and color and releases natural odors into the space.
Eliassons powerful use of light can be seen in 360° room for all colours (2002), a circular structure lined with screens covering an intricate electrical system comprising more than five hundred fluorescent lights. When viewers enter the space they are immersed in a panorama of changing light representing the entire color spectrum.
Model room (2003) brings the studio environment into the museum; a vast array of sculptural models and maquettes are hung from the ceiling and clustered on customized shelving units. Like many of Eliassons larger works, these prototypes and studies borrow from the visual vocabulary of science: Möbius strips, mirrored geodesic domes, quasi-crystals made of foamcore and foil, kaleidoscopes, and intricate lattice shapes based on mathematic principles. A fundamental work in Eliassons oeuvre, Model room exposes and demystifies his creative process, which is shown to be fundamentally interrogatory rather than declarative.
Developing alongside Eliassons sculptural and installation projects is his photographic work. Photographic suites systematically capture aspects of Icelands indigenous natural formations. The aerial river series (2000), a set of forty-two framed chromogenic prints, documents the length of a single waterway in its winding path from mountain to sea. The inner cave series (1998), a grid of thirty-six prints, forms an encyclopedic inventory of the openings of various caves -- transitional places where the earths hidden interior meets its visible exterior.
Born in Denmark in 1967 to Icelandic parents, Eliasson presently divides his time between a residence near Copenhagen and his studio complex in Berlin. In the early 1990s he joined an emerging generation of artists who were seeking to expand upon conventional object making through the use of ephemeral and intangible materials -- in Eliassons case, light, wind, heat, and especially water, in all its various stages from liquid to solid. The crux of his practice was honed during his student days at Copenhagens Royal Danish Academy of Arts, which he attended from 1989 through 1995. At the same time he was inspired by pioneers of the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, including Robert Irwin and James Turrell, and he was equally receptive to the European Arte Povera movement. It was also during his student days that he began an ongoing engagement with the philosophy of phenomenology and its focus on the workings of consciousness, especially visual perception, which led him to integrate visual phenomena as an artistic tool.
Eliasson had his first solo exhibition in Copenhagen in 1992 and since then his work has been widely exhibited in the United States and abroad. It was in 2003, however, that he captivated the art world with a massive environment called The weather project -- a gigantic artificial sun installed inside the Turbine Hall at Londons Tate Modern. Incorporating the artists signature elements of light, mirrors, and mist, the monumental installation attracted enormous critical success and nearly two million visitors. He has built upon this success with the New York City Waterfalls project in 2008.
The exhibition is organized by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director, MCA, and the Chicago presentation is coordinated by Dominic Molon, MCA Curator. SFMOMA created a 276-page exhibition catalogue featuring original essays by Mieke Bal, Klaus Biesenbach and Roxana Marcoci, Daniel Birnbaum, Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pamela M. Lee, and Henry Urbach as well as a conversation between Eliasson and fellow artist Robert Irwin.