Minimalism as R&D

John Haber
in New York City

Olafur Eliasson: In the Galleries, 2006–2008

For an artist born in 1967, Olafur Eliasson knows all too well what it means to enter a museum these days. It means tackling big public spaces and crowds to match. It means making an impact, enough to engage them before they move on, but also enticing them to slow down. No wonder he calls his retrospective "Take Your Time."

Spanning MoMA, MoMA PS1, and the Manhattan waterfront, the exhibition lets him address the masses while still asking them to slow down and look around. As described in a second part of this review, he takes an interdisciplinary approach—from playtime and fine art to science and social studies. He updates Minimalism for a period in which industrial hardware means new media and showing off rather than the modesty of found objects. Olafur Eliasson's Your Negotiable Panorama (Tanya Bonakdar, 2006)

In the galleries, he likes Minimalism so much that he supplies its theme song, both in sound and in the visual equivalent of its waveform. Even once one grasps Eliasson's range of interests, one may not expect what happens when he reaches less overtly for a wider public. He again focuses on the intersection between art and science, but when he returns to Chelsea, he gets fully into research mode.

Making waves

Sometimes art draws on Earth science for its ideas. And sometimes science takes a bit of art. It can help to foreground the differences, lest one provide a reductive account of art or science. One should never mistake metaphors out of science for scientific truths. One should never mistake, too, the physical components and determinants of a work of art for the art itself. It can help, however, to look at the aims, methods, and inspirations that art and science share. Comparing art and science can give one a handle on the multiple practices of each.

"Take Your Time" is not the first time that Eliasson's art resembles a science project. In his previous solo outing two year before, Olafur Eliasson literally made waves, and it underscores his love of interdisciplinary studies well before the tour bus stopped at MoMA PS1 and MoMA. I have edited physics texts, and I only wish the publisher had illustrated them so well. As one entered the installation in 2006, they rippled across the wall in a complete circle. One could see their shallow crests grow, shimmer, and dissolve. Standing waves formed, moved, and vanished once again, like an embodiment in light and air of what Buckminster Fuller called his "tensegrity" principle.

The spectacle must sound like a lecture demonstration, but that underscores the room's silence. I thought of unheard melodies from a gigantic guitar string, and the image seemed to pull its concentrated white light physically taut. The sensual encounter extended to a circular chamber, nestled in the center of the room like a Torqued Ellipse from Richard Serra. What looked at first like a large, black, circular sculpture filled with light contributed its physical presence, too. It also generated waves in a different medium, for it amounted to a floating platform on an unusually well-calibrated backyard swimming pool. I got still another sensual experience when I tested this impression by dipping my hand, a little guiltily, in the water.

The light at the platform's center projected its invisible movements onto the wall, like the rippling illusion of water by Leandro Erlich at P.S. 1. One did not have to know how wave patterns add. One did not have to know how longitudinal waves in water relate to transverse waves in light. One had a sense nonetheless, as with some realism in painting or skilled carving, of technical knowledge translating into something else again. One may have found more trickery than meaning, but any return to beauty in art runs that risk these days. I shall take water's shallow pleasures while I can.

The other rooms, too, got one pondering how he does it, and that conceptual layer helped the work cohere. One room furthered the theme of adding patterns to produce new ones, and it again allowed one to focus on the objects, the wall, or the space one occupies between them. Eliasson projected light from several directions through three decorative, circular, rotating plates. Perhaps only a geek like me would admire how he managed to keep the disks from colliding while they completed their respective circles. While no waves appeared, a physicist concerned with wave motion would recognize the mathematics of adding arcs to produce new shapes. Besides, waves underlie light, except when particles do—or art.

Actually, one work spanned two rooms, but again to toy with the dichotomy of object and image, cause and effect. Behind a curtain, an arrow blinked alternately in each direction of the compass point. The light sculpture flat against the wall looked a bit like conceptual art from early Bruce Neumann, but with the coded message somehow lost in translation. On the near side of the curtain, a pinhole projected the arrow onto a curved surface, suggesting a spinning compass floating in space. Again the reference points—the pinhole out of a camera obscura or the compass out of a map of the world—span the history of both science and art, but the meaning may lie in the whole notion of construction, with the viewer's movements playing a part, too. Eliasson calls the floating platform Your Negotiable Panorama, and he could be speaking of a changing Earth.

Taking time out

Eliasson has aimed large before as well. Before playing to the Yoshio Taniguchi atrium at MoMA, he had wooed a public at London's Serpentine Gallery and Tate Britain. For all the spectacle, however, "Take Your Time" asks for a heightened state of attention. It asks one to consider time and attention as much a part of the work as its materials—mostly mirrors, lens, mist, and projected light. Like the spectacle, too, its casual tone lets visitors set their own agenda.

Back in the gallery in time for his retrospective, Eliasson allows one to unwind and to have a little fun. He shows the same debt to Minimalism and to the glacial landscapes of his childhood in Copenhagen, the same visual and psychic overkill, and the same ingenuity in shaping the art object, and the same determination to shape the experience almost to the point of excluding the viewer. However, he also acknowledges the nature of a somewhat smaller, more private space. He lets one behind the scenes, while making the inner workings more difficult to follow. In sum, when he enters the gallery, he treats it as the occasion for a little R&D alongside the R&R. He makes more explicit the confluence of art and science, without caring all that much whether one sees either the art or the science as more than boy toys.

In that gallery show two years earlier, one went literally behind the scenes—behind his rotating planes to watch the evolving waveforms. This time, the scene becomes even more of a private affair, perhaps a commentary on the art market and the artist's fame. The experience remains communal, and it has received more than its share of press. Still, the gallery hardly lets one know that it exists, upstairs in its project space, for those who care. Neither the gallery entrance nor its Web site so much as mentions the artist's name. The work's hands-on component has only a few official hours late in the day, although the staff often responds to puzzled questions by turning the device on.

The staff had better, because its components defy easy explanation, so take a deep breath before you continue. Spatial Vibration dispenses with Eliasson's customary visual perplexity, although its eerie sounds recall avant-garde classical music—or the theremin on "Good Vibrations." Like its title, the work again asserts connections between spatial form and the underlying waveforms. As usual, too, for the artist, "what you see is what you get," only one may not see it or get it all at once. The creative process starts with a makeshift musical instrument meant for audience participation, and it ends with squiggly curves on paper shaped like a turntable, only bigger. Just try, however, getting from A to B.

The instrument consists of a steel rod that crosses a thick metal string. By plucking the string, one can produce a sound, and by pivoting the rod one can change its pitch or its hum. A table takes up much of the room for the production of drawings, and a stack of fresh sheets sits nearby on the floor. The drawing follows a slow spiral, like that of a vinyl recoding, while darting rapidly above and below the principal curve, like a needle in its groove. However, the paper does not actually rotate. Rather, folding, intersecting arms guide the black pen, like the polygraph machines once used to replicate handwriting.

One may hardly notice three tall stands along the far wall, with small, bulbous, flesh-colored sculpture on top. Originally contoured by laser in response to sound, these act as X-rated pendulums, but with their vibrations altered by the musical performance. Wires then transmit the corresponding electrical impulses to the polygraph. The three pendulums supply the three spatial dimensions of the drawing—one for the unfolding spiral, two for the freer traces along its route. The multiple metaphors for a sound recording and a signature make the work a kind of communal writing that a Structuralist might appreciate, so long as philosophy can accept the throbbing cacophony. For all the conceptual connections, Eliasson's philosophy comes down to just that.

BACK to John's arts home page

Olafur Eliasson's "Spatial Vibration" ran at Tanya Bonakdar through June 7, 2008, and "Your Negotiable Panorama" through May 27, 2006. A second part of this article completes the story with his midcareer retrospective, "Take Your Time," at The Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through June 30, 2008, and with artificial waterfalls on the Manhattan waterfront later the same summer.


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