Viewers Take their Time for Olafur Eliasson

BY Arts Desk  May 28, 2009 at 3:48 PM EDT

Artist Olafur Eliasson’s exhibitions are about you: Your loss of senses (2005), Your waste of time (2006), Your engagement sequence (2006) and Your mobile expectations (2007). His staged environments bring you into direct contact with breaths of humidity, loamy odors and all the elements of a Scandinavian landscape. In one room, you become the thing being illuminated (by the intense radiance of 500 fluorescent lights) because you are part of the work. You collude with the artist by participating in his installations (they are incomplete without you). In other words, at “Take your time,” Eliasson’s current show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, you are instrumental in your own deception.

“Take Your Time” was organized nearly two years ago by Madeleine Grynsztejn, former senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since then, it has been hop-scotching the country, with stops in New York and Texas. Now the exhibition has been reunited with its creator (in her new post as Pritzker Director) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Grynsztejn describes the building as “very assertive.”

“When [Eliasson] saw the large walls of the atrium and lobby space,” says Grynsztejn, “he immediately rose to the occasion,” creating a series of 300 skinny paintings specifically for the Chicago museum. This massive new installation, titled “Your Eye Activity Field,” is an inventory of the colors available to human perception, with each painting corresponding to one nanometer of the visual spectrum. On opening night, this broad ribbon of color was cast in the wan natural light of a wet Chicago evening, as well as the yellow aureole of a passage leading to the exhibition’s inner rooms.

For Eliasson, monochromatic paintings and limpid yellow spaces are not ornamental; light is not incidental, but a medium of dialogue between the viewer and his environments. When he domesticated the sun as part of the “Weather Project” (2003) at the Tate Modern, he created a temperate microclimate amid a grey London winter (winning him international acclaim). In “Room for one colour,” the first room of “Take your time,” monofrequency lights eliminate every wave length but what Grynsztejn characterizes as “DMV” (or stoplight) yellow. Within 40 seconds of entering, the room at the far end is suffused with indigo blue. This is in fact an “after-image,” an involuntary neurological response deliberately provoked by Eliasson (once our eyes had recalibrated after leaving the yellow room, neutral spaces, such as the white walls of the next gallery, appeared to be bathed in blue).


In “Beauty,” an installation tucked behind a dark partition, a spotlight shines obliquely through a curtain of fine mist in an otherwise darkened room, producing a gossamer rainbow visible from certain angles. It appears as if Eliasson had conscripted rain, mist, sunshine and other elements of the firmament to stage this environment. But his gadgetry — a perforated hose affixed to the ceiling — was plain to see.

Eliasson’s ethic of mechanical candor — his frank exposure of technology — sets him apart from illusionists of the 19th century, from the artists of the Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and more theoretically, the commercial purveyors of immersive experiences such as theme parks, television, shopping malls and Facebook. Unlike Facebook, where user activity is circumscribed by the interface, Eliasson aims to provide his viewers with an experience that is not regulated by what he calls the “experience economy.” And unlike his predecessors, Eliasson expects that his installations will promote social activity in addition to a heightened sense of self.

According to Grynsztejn, this ad hoc sense of community is “the final product and final aim of his work.” In “360º room for all colours,” viewers are surrounded by a panorama of throbbing light. Five hundred fluorescent lights mounted behind projection foil are regulated by a computer, and shift to a different color every 30 seconds. Conceived as a “little house of individuality,” in which each viewer’s impression of light depends on the first color she encounters, “360º room for all colours” nonetheless provides a platform for interaction among viewers as they seek to determine which color is authentic, and which a residual “after-image.” Eliasson has converted the first floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago into a foundry for what Grynsztejn calls “provisional but compelling social bonds.” Museum visitors, co-producers all, form a ragtag community, delighted by their partnership with the artist.

In “Model Room,” the final room of the exhibition, Eliasson bares it all: prototypes, molds, and miniature models, many of them handcrafted, grounding Eliasson’s chimerical installations in the context of failed and incomplete projects. By relocating his laboratory in a museum setting, he invites us to marvel at the seeming antinomy between the wonder of his installations and the transparency of his gadgetry. As Grynsztejn explains, “I think it comes down to generosity, I think it comes down to an artist who wants to expose how wonder is made.”

—Christopher Snow Hopkins, special to Art Beat