Eliasson’s A(museum)ent Park

Jarrett Earnest December 5, 2007
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Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Mobile Expectations,” 2007

Fifteen patrons remove grey blankets from hooks on the wall and wrap up. They huddle informally near the entrance, each face gauging and duplicating the other’s mounting inquisitive excitement. The attendant explains they are welcome to take an additional covering because it will be literally freezing and everyone looks mockingly, without moving their eyes, at the few in line too proud to bundle with the rest. The freezer opens accompanied by varied remarks on how ‘cold’ and ‘cool’ the artwork is. All exit shortly and return their temporary insulation. This is the process of seeing Olafur Eliasson’s 2005 Your Mobile Expectations, a hydrogen powered vehicle immobilized by an ice exoskeleton, and in many ways encapsulates the experience of the entire exhibition: one characterized by an amusement park feel of anticipatory line waiting to witness the ‘spectacular’ which at its best is the physical chill of the freezer and at worst the novelty of seeing one’s distorted reflection.

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Olafur Eliasson’s “Kaleidoscope,” 2005

Madeline Grynsztejn, the curator of the Olafur Eliasson retrospective “Take Your Time,” describes the exhibition as a “beautiful mixture of ‘Wow’ and ‘A-HA!’”[i] Meaning the work is at first visually or perceptually striking and then subsequently alleviates any consternation by quickly revealing the means of its production. This amalgam she celebrates is in fact, the greatest deficiency of the show, and is predicated on the importance of the physical and emotional act of experiencing the work. Such art is often associated with or categorized as phenomenological.

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Olafur Eliasson’s “One-Way Colour Tunnel,” 2007

As such, phenomenology is a term which often surfaces when discussing Eliasson. Rosalind Krauss’s analysis of Robert Morris’s 1965 sculpture L-Beams will further an understanding of phenomenology’s meaning and potential applicability[ii]. She argues that by presenting three identical “L” shaped structures with varying relationships to the floor Morris challenges the viewer to see them as the ‘same.’ Within the experience they can only be understood as ‘different.’ In this manner they push the viewer to contemplate the ‘truth’ that exists abstractly in the mind (that they are indeed identical,) which contrasts with ‘truth’ of perception (that they are not.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from whose work phenomenology derives, argues it is only through these gaps in perception that humans comprehend the world. L-Beams expose these ruptures to display the incompatibility of these two ‘truths,’ and it is this that marks its phenomenological function.

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Olafur Eliasson’s “Notion Motion,” 2005

Eliasson’s work Notion Motion is first seen through a dark passageway as undulating silver lines defining an approaching wall. Eventually the viewer catches raised planks underfoot and it becomes clear there is a direct relation between movement across the uneven floor and the image on the screen. When exiting the space the very apparatus which produces this effect is revealed as reflections off a pool of water extending beneath the uneven boards. Before this “revelation” this piece might be seen as creating in some shallow way a space of perceptual contemplation; however, this “A-HA” eliminates the discrepancies which must be revealed as irreconcilable in phenomenology, and returns the primacy of understanding to the abstract synthesis of the mind. This approach, which is typical of the show, can only be termed faux-phenomenological[iii].

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Olafur Eliasson’s “Beauty,” 1993

This notion, “faux-phenomenology,” is in no way coincidental and is symptomatic of museums in general in their move from “art-market cultural institution” to “mass-market leisure attraction.[iv]” When walking throughout the exhibition one sees lines of customers, waiting to “experience” a particular work of art, which they do for a socially appropriate amount of time (with guards standing near by to move the line along) after which they leave and evaluate not the fissures between their perceptions and understanding, but whether they experienced it “correctly.” To double check, there are pamphlets available at the door and from most attendants which detail the work and how it is to be understood and felt. Those instructions synthesize the occurrence for you. Their fundamental setup, one that hinges on epiphany, prescribe an experience; one more akin to a demonstration of prisms or static electricity in a children’s natural history museum than a provocative work of art. The faux-phenomenological cannot puzzle its viewers, even with its novelty, and that is what makes it superficially satisfying to the many customers who attend this show.

oeliasson_multiplegrotto2.jpgOlafur Eliasson’s “Multiple Grotto,” 2004

The disparity between the actual encounter and the information that surround it is deceptively ironic. Both the promotional material and the online interactive feature champion the uniqueness and individuality of the subjective experience. “Take Your Time,” a personally directed imperative, sets up a narrative journey, almost mythically, through which each visitor will pass and navigate obstacles before emerging on the other side in a place of heightened perceptual awareness. This draws crowds, all of whom gleefully gather to partake of this promised ride on a culturally elevated perceptual rollercoaster. Viewers (or should they be termed ‘experiencers’?) need only encounter the work long enough to understand the trick (the infinite reflections in a mirrored gash in the wall, the rainbow produced in mist, the nature of the dual-colored glass bridge, etc,) and then go to the end of the next line for a new titillation. They may never touch the ice, moss, or water which not only compels such (in the name of subjective physical experience,) but demands it. In this way only the illusion of a ‘unique experience’ is present, continually dictated by Eliasson on a fundamental level.

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Olafur Eliasson’s “360 Degree Room for all Colours,” 2002

This is true of the majority of the exhibition, with one most notable exception. Standing about a foot from the projection screen of Eliasson’s 360 degree room for all color the viewer’s entire visual field is awash in a seamless procession of hues: whites blushing into violent reds which blossom into chartreuse and so on. By completely filling peripheral vision in this way the viewer has no spatial relationship to the room or structure and then is plunged into a simultaneously euphoric and unsettling experience; a disembodied journey through color itself. In most everyday encounters with color, the material which bears it is itself is already inscribed by it[v]. By positing that colors and the matter that bear them are deeply socially coded it can be said that there are very few spaces to experience our own subjective responses and analyze these cultural inflections. However, 360 degree room for all colors affords that arena. It doesn’t hinge on an epiphany but a disembodied sense of self and it is precisely this which contributes to its success. While in this room one really can “take one’s time” and do the kind of work the show promises. It is contemplative and allows for personal and social decoding. Because it is again only the mind which works through this piece after disavowing the physical experience it upholds the category of faux-phenomenological.

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Olafur Eliasson’s “Room for One Color,” 1997

The only piece that function’s in accordance with phenomenology is the Room for One Color which, by bombarding the room with a particular yellow light, strips vision down to grey scale and poses to the viewer the conundrum: “I know these things are in color, but I can only see them in black and white.” The spectacular effect amuses in a way that seems uncritical and opens a space for the spectators’ indulgent entertainment in a manner “L Beams” never does as it radically works to reconfigure notions of perception and aesthetics. Most damning about this assertion is: if Eliasson’s greatest virtue is an engrossing amusement, he fails to captivate beyond the time needed to deduce the means of the illusion. This goes hand in hand with Eliasson’s own statements: “I’ve always been very proud of being a mainstream artist. I have no interest in being avant-garde if that means that I’m on the outskirts of society.”[vi] Despite the fact that idealized notions of “the avant-garde” seem passé, this statement is intriguing in the way he positions himself and ‘avant-garde” art in relation to the museum.

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Olafur Eliasson’s “Model Room,” 2007

It would seem that the idea of the faux-phenomenological as discussed here (the museum as mass entertainment,) goes hand in hand with Clement Greenberg’s notion of kitsch. Greenberg, firmly wedged within the discourses of formalism describes it as, “using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture… It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations.[vii]” It calls to mind not only Eliasson’s less ‘spectacular’ predecessors Robert Irwin and James Turrell (the raw material of Greenberg’s ‘genuine culture’), but the room of models on display to further remind the spectator of the scientific certainty upon which their perceptions are being manipulated ( the operations of formula).

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Olafur Eliasson’s “Yellow versus Purple,” 2003

Another of Eliasson’s statements sheds light on this exhibition: “I feel that museums shouldn’t be separate from the outside world but should reflect the times in which we live.”[viii] This his exhibition does: a time when even cultural institutions are so industrialized and assimilated into the mass consumer market they cannot take risks to challenge or provoke but instead parade through their halls amusing big-budget extravaganzas which may allure but not provoke, and pacify but never satisfy. Eliason’s work is symptomatic of the larger cultural climate: one which contrives experiences as opposed to the “genuine” occurrence. It is merely the literalization of the cultural freezer which has become the contemporary museum, from which we must work to emerge.


[i] Madeline Grynsjien says this on the SFMOMA’s interactive web feature under the heading YOUR EXPERIENCE IS INDIVIDUAL, on an audio bar under the “360 degree Room for All Color” subheading. (www.sfmoma.org/eliasson)
[ii] In the chapter “Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture” of her 1977 book Passages in Modern Sculpture Rosalind Krauss discusses how Morris and other sculptors of the time were inspired by Merleau-Ponty to create work that forced the structure and meaning to the outside of the artwork and thus made the viewer aware of his or her own body and perceptions. Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 (published in English in 1962) The Phenomenology of Perception was a key inspiration.
[iii] This is a term joking arrived at by Hal Foster in a round table discussion with Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, and Yves Alain-Bois at the back of their recent textbook Art Since 1900. Hal Foster says “Right: it is a “faux-phenomenological” experience: experience reworked, keyed up, given back to us in a very mediated fashion – as immediate, spiritual, absolute. To which Rosalind Krauss replies: “In that respect the concept of kitsch is relevant again.” I am obviously very indebted to this informal dialogue in the development in the concepts in this discussion.( Art Since 1900:Thames & Hudson. 2004.)
[iv] This statement is deeply indebted to Rosalind Krauss’s 1990 essay “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” which intern is derived from Frederic Jameson’s “Post Modernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Particularly the concluding stretch of Krauss: “And it also does not stretch the imagination too much to realize that this industrialized museum will have much more in common with other industrialized areas of leisure – Disneyland say – than it will with the older, preindustrial museum…dealing with mass markets, rather than art markets, and with simulacral experience rather than aesthetic immediacy.” (October: The Second Decade: MIT Press, 1997.)
[v] Liz Larner is a contemporary sculptor who deals with these issues of culturally informed color and how it affects form. In a recent Lecture at SFAI she discusses how she found that there was something inherent about the material used for red clothing, for example, that spoke to its ‘redness’ at a level of the textile. This interest is seen in all of her work, recently in her RWB 2004-05, featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, where she examines the possibility of red-white-and-blue’s national evocations .
[vi] From a Septermber 8, 2007 interview with Glen Helfand, available online at Art Attack! (http://artattack-gr.blogspot.com/2007/09/olafur-eliasson.html)
[vii] From Clement Greenberg’s 1935 essay “Kitsch and the Avant-Garde,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays To quote Greenberg in the present is almost a form of kitsch in itself, as such purifying terms as “genuine culture” attest. However I think a broader relevance still holds, as inaugurated by the Eliasson quote above.
[viii] Eliasson says this on the SFMOMA interactive feature under the WHY TAKE YOUR TIME heading, on the “Movie: Eliasson on time in the Museum.” (www.sfmoma.org/eliasson)

(Jarrett Earnest December 5, 2007)

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