Olafur Eliasson in Sydney
TAKE YOUR TIME
I stood on the hill waiting; dread and excitement. We all faced the direction the tsunami would come from. A few false sightings later the warning was cancelled. I had wanted so desperately to see it from the sanctuary of my hill that I felt DISAPPOINTMENT – then sanity kicked in and I realised exactly what I had been wishing for. For one wild moment I put the wonder of nature higher up my priority than the destruction and harm it would have inflicted.
Olafur Eliasson grew up knowing that he was insignificant next to nature. The natural world pervades his art but Eliasson points out that his ancestral Scandinavian landscape isn’t the key to his work. What is important is his upbringing in a society that put community needs ahead of the individual – and the resulting unease.
(Image: One-way colour tunnel 2007 © the artist)
Eliasson’s Take Your Time showing at the MCA is a big deal; long awaited and Eliasson is one of the art world’s biggest names. I felt a bit disappointed as I left the exhibition – for me the tsunami didn’t come. But let me explain – as I am in a minority here.
Erudite explanations of his art would make a philosopher/art historian’s head spin and the MCA literature does a good job of putting across the big points about his art. In a nutshell his main inspiration comes from: theories of colour and perception, the dematerialisation of art (the shift from physical objects to ideas/sensations) and his ancestral landscape.
The exhibition is a visual journey – the sequence and layout for each exhibiting gallery is given due consideration by Eliasson and his team. Hey let’s not leave it there – everything is considered, analysed and pondered, leading people to ask him directly if he is a frustrated scientist.
There is an immediate appeal; whether it’s green rivers or tables of Lego and rooms with strange light effects, there is definitely a draw that comes from our innate curiosity and perhaps our inner child too. So what saves it from just being a visit to the funfair – with fun lights, mirrors and other contraptions? To answer that question we have to delve deeper. Ok what is his art REALLY ABOUT?
Participation is vital to his work. We are co-creators. It’s often thought that Eliasson’s main subject is human experience and perception – tied to theories and the mechanics that function between the viewer and his artworks.
Eliasson often refers to the idea of “seeing yourself sensing”, and “sensing yourself seeing”. As in yoga and meditation your awareness can be outside your thoughts and experiences. He wants our awareness of the “construct” that exists; whether it’s in how he builds his artworks, or how our experience is shaped by the gallery, by the media, by our individuality and so on.
Nature’s role in his art has led to correlations with Romantic ideals – the artist Turner, and philosopher Immanuel Kant have been discussed in relation to Eliasson’s work. Our experience of the natural world as partly a human construct fits with aspects of Romantic philosophy. But Kant’s view of humanity as co-creators doesn’t fit with the high degree of singularity Eliasson proposes at the centre of his experience. Also, Eliasson’s frame of perceiving and evaluation in experiencing his art doesn’t allow for transcendence. He exposes the working apparatus behind his art – we are caught in the construction, there’s nowhere greater to go. We are left with immanence and the real significance is how our participation affects the meaning.
All this is important in his art but we still haven’t hit the real subject - which he says is people. So if we side-step away from the constructs and self-actualization and self-evaluation he asks the BIG QUESTION - what is our reality?
This search for the “Eye of God” where all influences are understood is interesting but unattainable. His 360 degree room and Room for One Colour (like being inside a toaster) didn’t inspire me where other works like Moss Wall, Beauty and Yellow versus Purple were all I’d hoped for. His incredible commitment to research and academic thought captivates me.
But questions bubble up that I can’t answer. I feel the artist’s position is not queried - he is setting this up, what part is he playing in the construct or is this diminished as he has collaborators? His subject is accompanied by an ethical emphasis on responsibility but without being a training ground for activism – can that achieve anything? Eliasson looks to causality and consequences rather than activism to make a difference. Where should we focus this responsibility, as it must fit in with collective and individual concerns?
He wants to sensitize people to difficult questions. His art is like a doctor with a knee hammer – it's forcing you to feel something through a physical encounter that you don’t normally give thought to.
(Image: Sunset kaleidoscope 2005 © the artist)
As Eliasson acknowledges, as co-creators we are all coming from a different place – these differences mean that my idea of beauty may be different from yours. Why some parts of the exhibition didn’t resonate with me is that there is no conclusion or truth. His art is caught in a self-reflective state with no enlightenment. Eliasson’s art is “stepping into the world, it is having reality.” But I’m looking to transcend reality – beyond people to a greater force . Just as I sat on the hillside waiting for the tsunami – I’m looking for the awe not the analysis.
Just when I fear he is too much the scientist he states that for him a waterfall is a way of measuring space. The speed the water falls can indicate if it is close or distant and allow you to place it in the landscape. He harbours a poeticism that sometimes escapes from his graphs and colour wheels. The idea of a tradesman pulling out a tape measure to find small waterfalls in place of numbers is wondrous. If the tsunami comes I’ll measure it so.
Homepage & Top Images: One-way colour tunnel 2007 Collection of the Art Supporting Foundation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 2007 Olafur Eliasson
Photo: Ian Reeves Photography, Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Bottom Image: Sunset kaleidoscope 2005 Installation view at Jamie Residence, Emi Fontana West of Rome, Los Angeles, 2005 Collection of John and Phyllis Kleinberg, courtesy Galleria Emi Fontana, Milan.
Image courtesy and © the artist Photography: Fredrik Nilsen
With thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Art is the means by which life reflects on, transforms and indeed creates its values; human life without it would not properly be human at all.Antony Gormley
There's no doubt that I cast a harsher eye around Take Your Time as Eliasson is such a large figure in the art world and my expectations were running high.
I didn't want to gloss over the sense of dissatisfaction I felt leaving the exhibition - even though it didn't fit in with the glowing reports I'd heard from others. Instead I hope the article conveys what I truly feel about Eliasson's art.
If the article does its job you'll understand where we lost each other - and how this fits into my individuality.