New York

Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson has long combined aesthetic rigor with an emphasis on subjective experience. While the former is usually based on scientific theories, the latter tends to bring with it a considerable measure of entertainment. Enjoyment certainly seemed key to the play of shadows and colored refractions on the white walls in this recent show, for which the ground-floor exhibition space at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery was entirely given over to Multiple shadow house, 2010. The set was neutral and basic: three empty rooms connected by a hallway, each with a low wooden platform as a floor. This almost domestic environment recalled a Japanese house with walls made of shoji screens—though the partitions here were the kinds of screens used for film projections. From the floor along one side of each enclosed space, a group of multicolored lights projected colors ranging from blue to green and from red to orange onto the screen walls. The installation was simple and the technical components all visible, with no hidden tricks. Before entering the rooms one saw nothing but this fixed luminosity: Nothing moved, nothing happened, the work was silent. But as soon as viewers stepped onto the platforms and into the path of the lights, their silhouettes broke into many differently colored shadows. The structure became animated—not only by ever-changing shapes in continuous movement, shadow theaters, overlapping outlines, but also by an unexpected sound track, produced by eruptions of laughter and people calling out from one room to another.

The participation of the public is a fundamental characteristic in Eliasson’s oeuvre. From the beginning, what the artist has staged has been shared space in which the audience can take its time to experience variations, incidents, metamorphosis; the work itself has existed as something at once real and illusory. In the pavilion of shadows exhibited here, the audience’s curiosity and joy became intrinsic to the completion of the piece.

In the upstairs galleries, a number of meticulously executed watercolors based on refractions and subtle gradations of colors were on view, along with Intangible afterimage star, 2008, a work made only of light, color, and geometry. In a darkened room, eight spotlights projected onto the wall a slowly shifting sequence of blue, magenta, yellow, red, green, orange, white, and turquoise geometric shapes. At the center of the wall was a small silver ball; focusing on it allowed the afterimage of the previously projected colors to linger on the retina, so that the total image as composed in the eyes ended up being much more complex than what was projected on the wall.

After about four and a half minutes, the projection abruptly stopped, and in the ensuing dimness there seemed to hover on the wall the image of a six-pointed star: the sum of all the geometric shapes and the merging of the complementary colors, an image that by now was entirely independent of the blank wall where one seemed to see its shape. Over the two intervening minutes before the subsequent projection began, the image slowly faded from the retina. But then, since this wasn’t a magic trick but rather a precise optical phenomenon that occurs not before but right inside one’s eyes, what did each person really see?

Eliasson asks us to observe, to watch and to reflect, to be conscious of the distinction between what our senses tell us and what is happening outside ourselves. With Intangible afterimage star, he presents us with a paradox: He makes us aware of a shared optical perception based on a physical law—yet the piece, despite its basis in science, ultimately validates individual experience as the only one in which it is advisable to have faith. Because the work is based on a succession of singular experiences, it becomes elusive, avoids univocal interpretation, and is multiplied, in time, to become the sum of many experiences.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.