Monday, May 26, 2008

Do It Right

I'm still sort of on the cusp between my coverage of BKLYN DESIGNS and the ICFF, so this is a great opportunity to pause briefly and discuss the Olafur Eliasson show at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Take Your Time.

I don't always rush right over to see many of these shows the very first day they open, but in a way I feel it's better to be making this post now that the show has been open for a while.  In raving about it to my friends, I've been reluctant to give away too many details for fear of ruining the impact for them.  There were many galleries I walked into and my mouth just hung open in amazement at what I was seeing, and it was one of the main reasons I was so inspired by this show.

On that note, if you haven't been to see the show, but seriously intend to go, I recommend you read no further and just go see it for yourself.

The majority of Eliasson's work concerns Space, in every possible aspect.  How we light, view, and perceive space, how we occupy and move through space, how we enclose space, how our brains geometrically organize space, and mind-boggling combinations of the above in all their varieties.  I'd like to describe the pieces I felt best represented each of these concepts, in my humble opinion.

Mirror Door (user), (spectator), (visitor), and (observer), all 2008.
In these pieces, light from carefully focused spotlights shine in different ways on mirrors, to create simple visual effects.  The resulting spot is always a perfect circle, which requires the lens of the spotlight to have a very specific elliptical shape.  I think (observer) is the most interesting because half of the circle of light hits the floor, one quarter the mirror, and the remaining quarter the wall.  This one in particular raises all these disturbing questions about the way we view light in space.  Never is the circle really complete, in fact the only way it's complete in our perception is because of the "false" half circle we see in the mirror.  And is the circle hitting the floor coming directly from the spotlight, or from the refection in the mirror...or both (both happens to be the answer)?

Approaching this concept from the opposite direction, I think it's worth noting Light Removal, 2005, in which a spotlight absolutely perfectly aligned hits an elliptically shaped mirror hanging perpendicular to the wall next to and below it.  The reflection of the light hits the wall as a perfect semi-circle on one side of the mirror, and on the other, the shadow forms another semi-circle, creating a full circle of half light, half shadow.  Here again, he's questioning the way that light affects our perception of the geometry of space.

The piece after which the retrospective is named, Take Your Time, 2008, is one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen.  You walk into the room at P.S. 1, and there's this ENORMOUS mirrored disk, probably a good 70 feet in diameter, hanging from the ceiling.

--Photo Eudie Pak
The next thing you realize is that it's slowly spinning.  Now, there are people laying on their backs on the floor, taking their time, as it were, so you go and lay down, also.  That's when you realize that the disk is hanging at an angle, so as it rotates, it's slowly canting from one side to the other, back and forth, and along with it, your reflected, upside-down image.  The whole thing is completely disorienting and screws with your sensation of gravity and your perception of how enclosed space works.  On top of that, you're underneath this probably 2000lb moving object, and it kind of creaks and makes these "chuk-chuk-chuk" sort of noises as it rotates.  It's actually a little bit scary.  It's an experience I will never forget.

The best of these, arguably, is Wall Eclipse, 2004.  Here a spotlight shines on a mirror hanging from the ceiling that rotates 360° once per minute.  The shadow from the back of the mirror at one point during the rotation will perfectly eclipse the far wall, while the light reflecting off the mirror completely and only illuminates the wall behind you.  

--Photo Artadox
But I found the rest of the rotation to be utterly fascinating, much like another piece called Remagine, 2002.  Both pieces force perspectives using light, questioning the way we perceive depth and enclosure, the conflict between what we know to be the enclosure we're occupying and what we see, that is, imagined depth of space.

A few different pieces examined the nature of walls and windows, and our concept of being enclosed inside a space, enclosed inside a gallery.  The most impressive of these may very well have been Space Reversal, 2007, a portal off one of the hallways which you step into and mirrors reflect yourself and the view out the window into infinity.  Unfortunately the line was so long that I decided not to bother waiting to go inside the portal.  I was also very interested, though, in Negative Quasi Brick Wall, 2003, in which stainless steel geometric "blocks" with reflective interiors are arranged on a large window to give you kaleidoscopic effects of both the inside of the museum, and the neighborhood outside the window.
--Photo DesignBoom

Occupy/ Move Through:
Eliasson's fascination with mirrors is always dissolving the line between Viewer and Viewed, anyway.  Other works are essentially composed solely of light, meaning that if you cast a shadow, you--by way of your shadow--become a part of the piece, itself.  The best example of this is I Only See Things When They Move, 2004, which is a huge room lit in varying, constantly changing bands of colored light.  The light comes from a huge fixture in the center of the room with multiple rotating mirrors and sheets of colored glass.

--Photo Artnews
On the one hand, if you require that there be a physical art object (which most of his work confounds anyway), and consider it to be the light fixture in the center, then as you look at it, the image of yourself is constantly being reflected to your view as the mirrors rotate, making you, the viewer, a part of its visual form.  On the other hand, if you allow that the real piece is ethereal and being created on the surrounding walls by the fixture, then the fact that the fixture is right in the center of the room means there is no way you can experience the piece without casting shadows on the wall, altering its appearance.

Possibly the least visually stimulating, but the piece that most clearly expressed to me what Eliasson's work is about was the Model Room, 2003.  I don't think I've seen so many complex geometric shapes all in one place before in my life.  

--Photo Portland Art
But this room really has everything, rotating mirrors reflecting you as you peruse, light effects, color spectrum effects, everything.  But most of all I was struck by the mathematical, geometric ways our brains (and technology for that matter) conceive types of spatial arrangements and figures.

Another full half of Eliasson's pieces in the show deal with more natural subjects, and in addition to stunning, minimalist landscape photography series (there's much more to it than just that, but I'll spare you), he's also done some Earth Art, as with his Reversed Waterfall, 1998, there at P.S. 1 but actually intended to sit over top of an actual mountain stream, interacting with it.

But I think my absolute favorite piece at the entire show was Beauty, 1993.  At the top of this completely blackened room are a number of nozzles that spray the very finest mist in a sheet down to the floor.  The spray would appear to be just barely heavy enough for the water to fall instead of creating a fog.  This undulating sheet of mist is then lit by a spotlight at a particular angle, forming a rainbow across the center.

--Photo Mobilo Me
Never before have I had an experience like this with a work of art.  I was in the room alone.  I went over, walked around it, touched it, walked through it, became mesmerized by it.  Never before had I experienced a piece of artwork that would fall on me, cover me, cascade down over me, that would stay on me, with me, when I left the gallery.  Not only that, but by running my hand under it and walking through it, I change its form, I become one with this piece.  It has changed my whole conception of interactivity, I may venture to say.

Similar, but in a completely different character is Your Strange Certainty Still Kept, 1996.  This is falling water also, but instead lit by a row of strobe-lights that freeze the water droplets in mid-air like little sparkles of light.

--Photo Huma3
The stunning thing here is the contrast between the frozen drops of water and the sound this makes.  Beauty is more or less silent, which is one of the things that makes it such an intimate, tactile experience.  This one, however, sounds like a rainfall, utterly soothing to listen to.  So while the flashing strobes are at first jarring, and the sparkles of light off the droplets choppy and stark, after a while it seems to all blend together in this hypnotizing continuous sensory experience.  I feel like there's something here about our perception of weather and the nature of rain.  It would seem Eliasson is somewhat fascinated by atmospheric phenomena, in general, as well.

Now, I have included the photo, to illustrate the piece, but it doesn't really look like anything.  And that's why I've ended the post here.  I need to have a rant.  I don't know why this is such an utterly irritating peeve for me, but once again, 95% of the visitors to this show were too busy snapping photos to even pay attention to the artwork.  And when we got to this room, I just shook my head and laughed at these morons.

You see above what it looks like in a presumably professionally-arranged photo session.  You get absolutely no concept whatsoever of what this piece is really doing or saying.  And guess what it's going to look like in a digital video from your camera phone.  

No, really.  Think about this for a second before you whip that stupid camera out.  

I'll tell you what you're going to get, you're going to get a black screen with randomly flashing points of light--in essence, like snow on a TV getting no reception, in other words, diddly-squat--a lot of indistinct white noise and the sounds of murmuring museum-goers.  In the meantime, you're not even experiencing the piece, you're just irritating ME.  It's going to waste memory space on your phone, and when you get home and look at this wasted video, it's just going to get deleted.  

This is the most idiotic overuse/misuse of new technology I have seen in a very long time, and it's got to stop.  I really wish the MoMA would go back to a "no photography" policy.  Okay, sorry, I'm done now.

Go see the show.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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