Olafur Eliasson’s Anti-Sublime Enchantment


“Art is about communication,’ I reminded a painter friend as she sang the praises of a mutual acquaintance, a sculptor with a prickly personality who makes notoriously recondite and difficult work. “Think so?” she responded. “I’d say art is about research.”

Communication or research? How interesting it is to view the history of modern and contemporary art in particular through the prism of that great divide. Frida Kahlo: communication. Marcel Duchamp: research. Henri Matisse: communication. Kasimir Malevich: research. Of course, no one’s work falls entirely on one side or the other. (Picasso’s Guernica: an experiment in form or a cry of political anguish? Koons’s Puppy: an expression of mass love or an essay in mass communication?) But in most cases, a basic impulse may be discerned.

Research is the operative mode for Olafur Eliasson, an artist raised in Denmark and Iceland who calls his Berlin studio a “laboratory” and collaborates regularly with scientists, engineers, and architects on projects ranging from the 2003 installation of an artificial sun in the vast entrance gallery of London’s Tate Modern to the design of a new BMW. The Tate installation (known as The Weather Project) made Eliasson, now 41, something of an artistic celebrity, with thousands thronging the museum’s massive Turbine Hall daily to lie on the floor, gaze up at the mirrored ceiling he’d mounted, and soak in the rays of the optical illusion he’d created from yellow lights, a huge semi-circular screen, and pumped-in mist.

It was the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of Eliasson’s “immersive environments,” as he calls them, many re-creating the effects of natural phenomena, like rainbows or solar eclipses, within museums and galleries. His was an art, coming from afar, that spoke to nature-starved urban sophisticates whose only contact with waterfalls or moss might take this highly mediated form. But it also reached out across class and geographical divides, using perceptual conundrums to dislodge received certainties about our relationship to art, our bodies, and our environment.

It was art that offered (sometimes quite literally) a breath of fresh air, engaging both the sense of smell, for example, and the philosophy of perception, and using minimal means to create transcendental effects, often through architectural interventions at several removes from the marketplace. Land artists like Robert Smithson, Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, Minimalists like Donald Judd, designers and social engineers like Buckminster Fuller: Eliasson riffed on their legacy with his own peculiar brand of anti-sublime enchantment—smoke and mirrors revealing themselves as such.

This deft sleight of hand that turns dry exercises in phenomenology into wonder-inducing spectacles is also at work in “Take Your Time,” a traveling survey of Eliasson’s work, which arrived at MOMA and P.S.1 recently from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it originated. The exhibition in New York, with its two institutions, straddles a body of water that will itself be the site of another Eliasson work once The Waterfalls, his project with the Public Art Fund—a series of monumental, man-made cataracts installed along both banks of the East River—opens in late June.

“Take Your Time” is something of a teaser, then. For people unfamiliar with Eliasson’s work, it will likely come as a revelation. For those who have followed his career, it may prove a more uneven experience—heavy on research at times, and light on communication. In any case, it offers material for reflection on the way museums assimilate art that makes radical claims on our attention.

The first radical claim comes in the shape of an electric fan, swinging wildly (like an out-of-control pendulum or a hypnotist’s watch) just above the viewer’s head in MOMA’s central atrium. Ventilator, as an exhibition opener, is audacious—with its elusive breeze and slightly menacing motion, it’s a pirouetting high-wire act that seems to have swept away the Barnett Newman sculpture and the paintings (by the likes of Monet, Twombly, or Jennifer Barlett) that usually reside there.

The second comes in the form of an intense yellow light that begins to bathe visitors on their way up the escalator and continues through the third-floor hallways, so that, caught unawares, you’re immersed in the art before the exhibition even properly opens. (Don’t look for wall labels; your clues­—including titles, dates, and descriptions of the works—are to be found in the accompanying map/brochure.) Room for One Colour (1997) plays perceptual tricks, so that everyone appears to be wearing either black (which they probably are, this being New York) or yellow; it also turns the portal at the end of the hallway violet, so that we seem to be progressing down it toward both the main exhibition space and an illusion.

On the way, your attention is arrested by Space Reversal (2007), an opening cut into the corridor wall that you step up into; lined with mirrored foil, it shows your reflection, upside down and every which way, unto infinity. Other visually ravishing, if psychologically (and physiologically) disorienting works include 360 Room for All Colours, a panoramic chamber whose circular walls are illuminated with a changing spectrum of colors, evoking images of nature (rosy-fingered dawns, empyrean blues, the whiteness of the desert sky at midday) and acting on your emotions. (What does it feel like to be magenta?)

A curtain of moist and fragrant reindeer moss (Moss Wall, 1994), subtly variegated in color and filling an entire gallery wall, takes the minimalist monochrome in an entirely new direction. And in Your strange certainty kept still (1996), droplets of artificial rain, falling in a darkened room from a perforated hose positioned high overhead, are momentarily illuminated in mid-sprinkle by flashing strobe lights, so that they twinkle like a jeweled veil or stars in the night while offering a proto-cinematic sense of time’s passing.

Do these and other works at MOMA rattle our fundamental notions about art or the individual’s relationship to society? Probably not—but then, that’s a tall order. The best of them skirt the dry formalism that is this artist’s Achilles’ heel and reach deeper into the realm of fascination and feeling.

Perhaps context is all: Over at P.S.1, the specter of formalism seems more remote in a mix of Eliasson’s older and newer works. There, visitors can also intuit the biographical underpinnings of his oeuvre in several series of photographs, arranged in grids, of glaciers, caves, rifts, and horizons that he’s taken on his frequent walks through the geologically active landscape of Iceland. Two long galleries filled with mixed-media models (geodesic domes, Tatlinesque constructions, and the like) also give a sense of the fertile workings of his creative process.

A cave-like room (Soil Quasi Bricks, 2003), whose walls are covered with hexagonal earthen tiles, seems to have emerged from volcanic depths. The illuminated ceiling of another bare gallery (The natural light setup, 2008) emits different shades of white light, revealing the white cube (the standard envelope of Western art) as entirely artificial, while calling up the various emotions elicited by bright and overcast skies.

In the basement, Beauty (1993) conjures a constantly shifting rainbow from a spotlight shining on a fine rain of mist, recalling will-o’-the-wisps and other supernatural spirits that once beckoned to 19th-century travelers in the marshes of Europe. And upstairs, a dizzying brand-new work—an immense, circular mirror, attached to the ceiling at an angle and rotating slowly­—reflected, on opening day, a large portion of the New York critical establishment. The axial movement of Take your time (2008)—the work, created exclusively for P.S.1, that lends its name to this entire exhibition—reminded us that, like the turning of the earth’s sphere, each new day carries the potential for revolution.