Monday, June 30, 2008

Art: Olafur Eliasson at MoMA/PS1

I'm glad that I saw the fun, but less spectacular, PS1 portion of this show before going to see the installations at MoMA, or else I may have been disappointed. From the PS1 installations, one might identify Eliasson as a hit-or-miss artist, someone who has the occasional great idea, but who also gets rather mired down in obsessive, uninteresting nonsense. The occasional great idea would be the "title track," Take Your Time, where, to truly appreciate this piece, one must do exactly that. Walking into the large gallery (I love the proportions of PS1's huge, high-ceilinged, airy rooms), you see people lying on the floor, looking up into an immense, slowly rotating circular mirror, which is mounted at an angle not parallel to the ground. It is difficult to describe the trippy results without leaning on psychedelic language, but the euphoria this piece induces is a kind of mind-bending, total-body displacement, a woozy, uncanny, unplugging of from spatial reality that might seem like a gimmick, if it weren't for a number of Eliasson's other similarly brilliant pieces. Rather than dwell on the assorted bits and pieces of dreck also housed at PS1 (I'm thinking of the Model Room, which is, to be honest, a collection of studies, rather than an actual work of art, and perhaps therefore undeserving of my derision), I will move directly to MoMA, where the real jewels of the exhibition are housed.

The hands-down most stunning piece at MoMA right now happens to be part of Eliasson's show, and it is called Your strange certainty still kept, consisting of a magical curtain made by flickering points of light. The mechanical description of the piece is that a ceiling-mounted bar dribbles water into a trough on the ground, and the drops of water are illuminated by strobe lights, but that doesn't quite evoke the power of the installation, which manages to simultaneously tap into the primordial and the mechanical, the innocence of a childhood magic show and the sordid fascinations of a strip club. It describes, far more than the so-called installation at PS1*, beauty.

The on-its-heels runner-up to this piece is the visceral head-trip (an oxymoron, I know) of Room for one colour, for which Eliasson installs a lengthy corridor directly off the escalator with a kind of yellow tubular light bulb. These lamps at first simply seem egregiously bright, but after a bit, you shake your head in confusion as you realize that they somehow bleach everyone of color, so that you're walking in an old photograph or movie, or amongst the ultra-punk-rock. This is another of the visually-uncanny kinds of work that is delightfully so. The emotion induced is similar to the emotion felt (if a fan could feel) by the freewheeling fan in Ventilator, which, hung on a sturdy cable, propels itself as if a small child on a swing, in random, gleeful circles, heedlessly threatening to threaten the heads and raised hands of the audience (but being too good-natured to do any actual harm). When exiting the black & white hallway into the next room, color emerges as in the film Pleasantville; people look tinted, falsely painted, in strange and muted colors, until one's eyes adjust.

The smaller pieces at MoMA, including a number of spot lights pointed at mirrors and the ground to create "No way!" moments of geometrical perfection, delight on a more puritanical level. A circular colored projector in another room brings to mind the shadowbox at the Exploratorium, for all you San Franciscans out there. A slowly-changing, ceiling-sized light box in one of the PS1 installations, which shifts from dim to need-sunglasses bright, and from golden to rosy, recalls the same museum's Meeting by James Turrell. Turrell is the artist who might first come to mind when walking into most of Eliasson's installations.

There are, it must be said, large pieces that don't quite make the jump from ephemeral to mystical, and these include the Moss wall at MoMA and the Reversed waterfall at PS1; the first is a bit too dead, the latter a bit too sloppy. But ultimately, Eliasson's work is the first ultra-contemporary, ultra-conceptual art that has moved me in a long time; I don't think I've felt this kind of ebullient thrill since illegally climbing inside the sculptures at SFMoMA's Sol LeWitt retrospective. And at the Eliasson show, I wasn't doing anything that I wasn't supposed to be doing.

*Beauty consists of a wall of water as well, only a much finer, continuous mist, against which is trained a steady light, producing a rainbow. The piece is almost as ephemeral, though nowhere near as magical, as Your strange certainty still kept.

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