Olafur Eliasson, The open pyramid, 2016, steel, aluminum, mirror foil, wood, paint, spotlight. Installation view. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Olafur Eliasson, The open pyramid, 2016, steel, aluminum, mirror foil, wood, paint, spotlight. Installation view. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson, The open pyramid, 2016, steel, aluminum, mirror foil, wood, paint, spotlight. Installation view. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

THE TITLE OF Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition at the Long Museum West Bund, “Nothingness is not nothing at all,” was cleverly translated as “Wu Xiang Wan Xiang,” a riff on Chinese philosophical perspectives on nature and the universe. Uniting two homophonic versions of xiang, the former referring to appearance or form and the latter to a manifestation of nature, the Chinese version thus read: “Assuming no appearance is (to embrace) every manifestation of nature”—ironic, given that there was nothing natural in this exhibition, which marked the artist’s most comprehensive presentation in China by far.

The open pyramid, 2016, a large-scale, site-specific installation commissioned by the museum, put visitors center stage immediately after their entry into the cavernous gallery space: A giant hollow pyramid, built with an aluminum framework and reflective sheets, hung from the museum’s soaring arched ceiling, its lowest edges floating about eight feet aboveground. Those stepping within found an austere white glow radiating from the spotlight mounted at the structure’s inner apex, illuminating the mirrored reflections of their images in all four directions.

For a career-spanning survey of an artist whose primary interest lies in probing sensory self-awareness, this seemed a fitting start, as the first of a carefully curated selection of his works from the early 1990s to the present. The technological illusions on view were often so lovely that few spectators managed to put aside their smartphones and turn their attention to the paintings that similarly, if more subtly, investigated perceptions of color and form. As though offsetting the show’s spectacular aspects, some of the newer works seemed to be plainly didactic. Still river, 2016—five ice blocks made with water from the nearby Huangpu River—laid bare the extent to which pollution bespoils Shanghai’s main waterway; the thin layer of black soot on top of each block offered an explicit reminder that this was not a show designed for enjoyment alone.

The exhibition was most generative in its juxtaposition of Eliasson’s work with the conditions of a present-day, technology-mediated China. During a conversation with Daniel Buren that appeared in the May 2005 issue of Artforum, Eliasson spoke of wanting to “make a semitransparent surface that would allow one both to see the institution and to look through it.” This impulse to create an embodied interface between the soft world of representation and the hard reality that frames it resonates deeply with today’s internet culture, in which the web page, taken at face value, typically offers a flattering portrait of the entity it represents, while networks of links to other sites constantly provide glimpses beyond such representations. Indeed, in a catalogue essay for Eliasson’s traveling survey “Take your time,” 2007–10, Pamela M. Lee suggested that the artist’s immersive technologies and virtual realms, however seamless and all-encompassing, are nevertheless constantly interrupted by glitches, materiality, machines—producing a contradictory coexistence of ambient effects and a self-reflexive awareness of the mechanisms generating said effects. If Eliasson’s work has been alternately praised and condemned for its appeal to a universal perceptual experience—a pure phenomenology that transcends cultural difference—this exhibition showed that the artist’s physiological manipulations can be linked to highly specific social contexts, evincing the ways in which our bodily gestures are always rooted in place and time. Contemporary China is, as it happens, a particularly resonant site for Eliasson’s oeuvre: Here, even the red envelope, a traditional Lunar New Year gift symbolizing good luck, seems to have frictionlessly migrated to the online world via such applications as WeChat, yet the government blocks an ever-changing subset of websites and services provided by multinational companies such as Google and Facebook. This interference is a constant reminder to a younger generation of Chinese internet users that their virtual universe, visually engrossing and spectacular in its own right, is part of a bigger war between offline social entities—states, political parties, and corporations. Against this backdrop, Eliasson’s work becomes a plangent reminder that things are both exactly as and nothing like they seem.

Du Keke is the editor of