New York

Olafur Eliasson

A viewer rushing to Olafur Eliasson’s latest exhibition expecting a quiet epiphany or a spontaneous unveiling of the mechanisms of perception—an “Aha!” moment, as the artist says—would have been disappointed, at least initially. Eliasson had turned the gallery’s main space into a cluttered workshop in which cobbled-together shelves and ad hoc vitrines lined the walls and spilled into the center—not a stark, subtle “intervention” by any means. Titled Modelroom, 2003, the work was true to its name, functioning primarily as an invitation into the artist’s preparatory processes, which, we learned, are made up of equal parts architecture and science fiction and supplemented by a mammoth dose of advanced mathematics.

Everywhere one looked there was another vaguely alchemical, mad-scientist-meets–Buckminster Fuller confection—here a geodesic dome, there a spiral sphere, in the corner a star-shaped tensile structure complete with tiny plastic men for scale. The myriad maquettes represented dozens of spatial forms, some merely experimental (and perhaps impossible), some meant to be realized in the future, others already built. (The installation was the most recent in a series of collaborations with Einar Thorsteinn, an Icelandic architect, engineer, and crystallographer.) There was a sort of recycled sensibility to all the wood, wire, cardboard, and aluminum foil, as if it had been diligently salvaged and then redeployed (a nod to arte povera as much as an illustration of tired but persistent utopic ideals). Like the crystals from which many borrowed their shapes, Eliasson’s constructions multiplied exponentially, filling the gallery with a visual noise atypical within his oeuvre.

Eliasson is often admired for his subtle architectural and technological works that punctuate (and sometimes puncture) the monotony of the everyday—his ability to turn the banal into an unexpected site of illumination. Indeed, for some ten years, he has managed to use a Romantic vocabulary without submitting to kitsch, producing such wonders as a mechanized waterfall designed to rush upward, a doppelgänger sunset (where a giant metal disc set high on a tower mimicked the real thing), and urban rivers whose waters he temporarily dyed a toxic-looking neon green. (In fact, Eliasson included one such poetic piece, to sublime effect, in the smaller gallery space: Plane Scanner, 2003, a minimalist work in the Light and Space tradition in which two lighthouse lanterns cast their rotating beams onto the walls, floor, and ceiling of the otherwise dark room. Neatly demarcating the contours of the white cube, Eliasson simultaneously disallowed any holistic comprehension of it.)

Modelroom performed a completely different and uniquely valuable (if aesthetically risky) critical function. You can’t really have an “Aha!” moment if you know you’ve got one coming, so Eliasson slyly offered the opposite of what audiences have come to expect: the dumb material stuff, the labor and failures and impossible fantasies, sketched out in all their messy and even embarrassing tactility. Eliasson has, time and again, “made it new” for his viewers, elegantly laying bare and slightly tweaking perspectives and physiological experiences that usually go unattended. Yet if the artist’s continuing project is to encourage the spectator to heighten his or her “attention to life”—to borrow a phrase from Henri Bergson, Eliasson’s muse—here he nimbly kept to his task by counterintuitively multiplying and magnifying the pragmatic material conditions that make those transcendental experiences possible.

Johanna Burton