When a show is called Take Your Time, and runs for four full months, there seems to be no great urgency in visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art. So little urgency that I’m always talking to people who missed an MCA exhibition because they thought they might go next week, or perhaps the week after, or the week after that…
There is still two months to run for Olafur Eliasson: Take your time, but don’t be too complacent, as this is the main visual arts component of the Sydney Festival, and certainly one of the MCA’s better shows. It’s debatable whether it is “the must-see contemporary art event of the year”, as the museum’s press release asserts, though such claims sound almost low-key alongside the hullaballoo the National Gallery of Australia has made about its Masterpieces from Paris.
Over the past decade the Danish-Icelandic artist, Eliasson (b.1967), has become one of the big names in the international contemporary art scene. As his reputation has grown he has been able to undertake ever larger, more expensive projects. The most memorable was probably the New York City Waterfalls in 2008, which saw four large, temporary waterfalls constructed on the harbour front, at a cost of approximately US$14.5 million. His earlier show-stopper was The Weather Project of 2003-04, which involved the creation of an indoor sun for the gigantic Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.
Sydney has not been fortunate enough – or cashed-up enough – to be the recipients of a similarly monumental project. Instead, the MCA are playing host to a survey put together by the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2007. The show has been tweaked a little for its only Australian appearance. It includes drawings, photographs, models, maquettes and large-scale sculptural installations from 1993 to 2008, along with a new addition: The cubic structural evolution project (2004), from the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery. This consists of a long table covered in three tons of white LEGO blocks that visitors may assemble into whatever futuristic shapes they desire. This is the most well populated part of the exhibition, and possibly the most imaginative. When I was there one afternoon the table and surrounds were laden with science fiction cityscapes.
This is an obvious example of a work that invites audience collaboration. Indeed, Eliasson’s role was merely to provide the LEGO. But if we take the artist at his word, all of his pieces are intended to make us active participants in the creative process. In slightly coy fashion, Eliasson doesn’t like the term: “the viewer”, he prefers to say: “the user”.
Because his works may be immersive or interactive in nature, Eliasson places a strong emphasis on sensory experience. We don’t simply stand and admire one of his pieces from a distance of a metre or two. In some cases we virtually inhabit a work, for instance, the Room for one colour (1997) at the start of this exhibition, in which we enter a gallery saturated in a sickly yellow light. I’m not sure what prolonged exposure might do to one’s mind, but the yellow plays on the retina, making us see a complementary colour when we look at a white surface.
On the other side of the LEGO metropolis is 360 degree room for all colours (2004). One enters a broken circle upon which the hues of the spectrum are displayed in a continuous cycle. Different times of day and different weather conditions seem to flare up and fade before our eyes. There is a mute drama to the piece, in which the play of light touches our senses in ways that are barely detectable.
This strategy is repeated throughout the show, as Eliasson wants us to relate to works through the entire body, not just the eye. A wall of Arctic moss, which is growing during the exhibition, has a wonderfully tactile appearance, and gives off a faint odour. In Beauty (1993), a rainbow is generated by the simple device of passing a light through a fine spray of water. Once again, the piece invites touching, and many visitors wave a hand through the radiant mist.
A stainless steel contraption called Multiple grotto (2004) is reputedly a three-dimensional walk-in kaleidoscope. The cleverest part of this installation is that, although the inner surface has dozens of small mirrors, the visitor is not reflected in any of them. I thought of those B grade horror films where vampires are detected when their reflection doesn’t appear in the mirror.
One might linger in any of these installations for a long time, waiting for an altered state. On the other hand, one could make a quick circuit of the show in ten minutes flat, registering the idea behind each piece. Eliasson wants us to take things slowly, savouring the nuances of these works, letting cycles take their course. It is almost as if he aspires to a state of Nature, asking us to stand and admire some artificially generated phenomenon that would usually be found in the great outdoors.
This goes against the grain of the conventional experience of an art museum, in which we tend to admire the skill of the artist and perhaps puzzle over the deeper meanings of a work. Eliasson’s installations are so disarmingly simple that the artist himself comes across as little more than a conduit. Like a scientist in his laboratory, or perhaps a special effects man in the movies, he sets up various scenarios that duplicate processes of the physical world. He barely attempts to conceal his artifice. The device that generates a delicate rainbow might have been purchased from a hardware shop.
One could call Eliasson a minimalist, or perhaps a new kind of landscape artist. He doesn’t attempt to convey messages about climate change or pollution, all he asks is for us to pause and engage our senses. This is a modest request and it is easy to comply. There is a mild sense of pleasure to be had from these works, and perhaps a quickening of our perceptions.
Matters become murkier when one reads the long-winded essays in the handsome catalogue. Eliasson is an intellectual artist, who has read widely in the fields of philosophy, psychology and science, yet there is a world of difference between a philosophical proposition and the kind of ambit claims made in contemporary art catalogues. One winces to think what a philosopher like the late David Stove would have made of many of the far-fetched ideas expressed in this publication.
Curator, Madeleine Grynsztejn, writes: “both Eliasson and the museum envisage perception as an action: purposeful, voluntary, and expressive of an individual’s autonomy.” On this proposition, which seems reasonable but overstated, rests a huge amount of claptrap. As usual, an artist is making us “aware” of something that could only elude a person in a coma. Once we experience Eliasson’s installations we apparently become aware of ourselves as perceiving subjects. This in turn alerts us to the fact of our own autonomy, (presuming that we had gone through life as mindless drones up until that point). The next stage is to go out and overturn an unjust social order, or as Grynsztejn phrases it, become “less docile members of society”.
To this end, one of the special ambitions of Eliasson’s art is: “to create a space in which a person can consciously participate in his or her own life and time.” Pardon me for sounding obtuse, but surely anyone incapable of participating in their own life and time is hardly likely to be wandering around art museums looking for revelations. The implication is that most of us exist in a state of unconsciousness until we accidentally stumble over an Eliasson show that rouses us from our slumbers. This seems uncomfortably close to the way our leading politicians seem to view the general public, although they’d undoubtedly prefer us to remain stupefied.
This sloppy way of thinking and writing is a familiar feature of contemporary art catalogues, although Grynsztejn’s essay is a model of sober reportage compared to the efforts of art theorist, Mieke Bal, who has written about Eliasson in her native language, Double Dutch
Eliasson’s work gets easily drawn into debates about “the role of the museum” – an intense form of navel-gazing to which art institutions are increasingly prone. When an artist seems to use the space of the museum in a different way, this is treated as an earth-shattering achievement. Yet museums are so flexible and all-encompassing nowadays, that, short of blowing them up, they are virtually impossible to subvert.
By all means take your time with Olafur Eliasson. There is much to enjoy with his dabblings in science and optics, even if there is an occasional suggestion of a high school science lesson. Don’t be disappointed, though, if you leave the MCA feeling that you haven’t quite seen the light.
Take your time: Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Contemporary Art, December 10, 2009-April 11, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 13, 2010