Copenhagen

Olafur Eliasson, Riverbed, 2014, blue basalt, water. Installation view.

Olafur Eliasson, Riverbed, 2014, blue basalt, water. Installation view.

Olafur Eliasson

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Olafur Eliasson, Riverbed, 2014, blue basalt, water. Installation view.

Ever since Olafur Eliasson debuted his Green River project (in which he introduced a nontoxic substance into a stream so that the water temporarily glowed a bright-neon green) in Berlin in 1998, rivers have been an obsession for him. Now, on a typically grand scale—I wonder whether anyone has ever challenged Eliasson to produce a work on a small scale, and whether he would be able to manage?—the Danish-Icelandic artist has created an entire riverbed in a wing of the Louisiana Museum. You walk down a long hallway with sterile white walls along a wooden floor, a sort of plinth, before arriving at the river floor. Eliasson’s Riverbed, 2014, consists of more than 180 tons of volcanic rock and pebbles, mainly blue basalt, imported from Iceland—rocks and pebbles of all sizes. For a riverbed, it is not as muddy as I expected it to be. In the course of its passage through the rooms, the riverbed slopes upward. You can walk from one end of the exhibition to the other, through an entire wing of the Louisiana Museum, and come away with your shoes still clean. And because it is all rocks, there is no risk that your feet will ever sink down into muck, even though there is a small stream running down the center of the piece. The white walls have been kept intact, to allow you the comfort of knowing that you are still institutionalized—that is, contained in an exhibition space.

Being in the space becomes an adventure in walking and pondering. One question I kept asking: Why is it so clean? Surely this is a missed opportunity. Eliasson could have had a lot more fun, tossing trash about, perhaps making the space a bit more dangerous to navigate, while simultaneously forging a valuable and intriguing commentary on the pollution of the world’s rivers, the gradual poisoning of the earth’s water supply, and other pressing ecological crises. Instead, not much is offered besides the spectacle of one system (ecological) transposed into another (cultural)—thereby causing the two to collide, dashing the perceptual fixity of each. Out of the exchange, one would expect some lingering ontological mystery to hover, but instead, the hollow anti-aura of stunt theatrics results. Cleanliness is not the sole dearth of authenticity. Why the small stream? If the installation is meant to be a riverbed, as the title suggests, then it should be the bottom of a river—not a thing that contains a small river. One can only speculate that the artist felt that some suggestion of water, of wetness, was necessary for creating a convincing illusion. Plus, having live water flowing through the space endows the work with the cool factor without which, I suppose, it could not be an Eliasson.

Also on view here are three video works. Your Embodied Garden, 2013, depicts a piece of a twenty-first-century Chinese garden in Suzhou. Movement microscope, 2011, shows a group of dancers in the artist’s studio engaging in sporadic slow movements, performing a sort of cross between tai chi and mime. Innen Stadt Aussen (Inner City Out), 2010, consists of shots of Berlin as reflected in a mirror affixed to a truck traveling through the city; the truck itself is never seen. Supplementary to the spectacle of Riverbed, these feel like unnecessary filler in what is essentially (surprise, surprise!) a big, blockbusting crowd-pleaser of a show.

Travis Jeppesen