One-Way Color Tunnel, Olafur Eliasson, 2007
Many viewers will have a blast pondering some of Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition Take Your Time at the Dallas Museum of Art — and some will be bored by part of it. An easy enough prediction; one could say it about any exhibition.
But I also predict that, afterwards, there will probably be some fender benders in the DMA parking garage. You come out from Take Your Time still blinking your eyes, trying to focus on things in the dim light while heading straight into oncoming traffic.
Wham: instant John Chamberlain sculptures.
You’re blinking because Eliasson’s work is akin to the old “op art” — those geometric dazzlers from the ’60s and ’70s that seemed like design-pattern gimmicks more than anything else, and something of a dead end for art, as well In ‘playing with perceptions,’ Eliasson messes with the way the human eye senses color and distance and space — somewhat in the manner of op art. He tinkers with the distance between seeing and understanding: Those projected rectangles that appear along the walls in “Reimagine,” for example, make the room seemingly extend farther than it really does.
Fake Spiral, James Merry, 2007
Unlike “op art,’ though, Eliasson’s works (the ones included here, at any rate) are sculptural-mechanical-electrical installations (when they’re not photos). So the experience is much more total and immersive than with op art’s now-seemingly rather-discreet bits of psychedelia on a wall. Eliasson doesn’t just mess with your eyes; he rearranges your whole world, shifts its spectrum, slows it way down. Sitting in his “360 Degree Room for All Colors” is like sitting outside, dreamily watching clouds slowly change overhead, altering the sunlight all around you (in its way, it’s very much akin to an indoor version of the James Turrell ‘skyspace’ at the Nasher Sculpture Garden).
Like op art, Eliasson’s works also have little apparent “content” — which is why quite a few are immediately accessible to many people as direct, pleasurable, sensual experiences: It’s fun to peer at all the kaleidoscopic mirror images in “Multiple Grotto.” Especially if they’re your own fragmenting face.
Or consider Eliasson’s now-famous New York City waterfalls situated on piers and bridges (frankly, I wish Dallas would have been the site for one of Eliasson’s ambitious, more ‘environmental’ projects): One can talk about the symbolism of refreshing, life-giving water fountaining out of unexpected places, of cleverly inserting this natural-seeming, temporal phenomenon, this gushing sound and rippling curtain, in the middle of a harshly urban, concrete landscape. But the fact is that as public art, they had an impact any child could grasp: They were so cool.
The lack of ordinary ‘content’ in Eliasson’s gallery works can also make them appear seemingly “empty” and impenetrable — like some minimalist-conceptualist geometric object. Note the number of his works that require a big, white room all to themselves. This way, they can control the entire visual environment, first by emptying it out and then by changing a single element (the color of the room or the shadows on a wall).
As a result, his works are often a kind of “minimalism of light.” In his gallery works, light and color and time are Eliasson’s basic building blocks — just as basic building blocks for Donald Judd are, well, basic building blocks. Hence, the shrugged shoulders some of his works will prompt. OK, I get it, the entire room is yellow. So?
But much like some minimalist art — or like Zen Buddhism, for that matter — the emptiness can be the content. We look at ourselves, perceiving. As much as Eliasson’s works can convey an immediate experience (hey, that was a neat color), they reduce our sensory perceptions to a single factor, so we now see the world in one shade. Or one shape. Or in a single, slow-moving moment. Light, color and time, after all, are pretty much the building blocks of the visible universe.
This is where the title’s suggestion comes in. A degree of thoughtful patience is required. Look at what that yellow room does to you, for example, and what it does to everything around you: It becomes almost a binary experience, everything is crisply yellow or not-yellow. (One wonders whether Eliasson knew of the art-historical reference: Whistler’s famous “Peacock Room” was a patron’s dining room he re-did entirely in yellow and gold leaf. He also painted his entire studio yellow.)
Frankly, my eyes (and my patience) were a little tried by the end of Take Your Time. How many times do we need a demonstration that our eyes see one thing but our brain tries to understand it as another?
But Eliasson keeps popping up with different takes, different ways of experiencing our surroundings. Betsy cleverly called these “science experiments” in her blog post. And unlike op or minimalist art, Eliasson’s works can fascinate on the sheer inventive, gizmo-technical level: the buzzing-mosquito of the overhead flying fan in “Ventilator,” the rotating light filter in “Yellow vs. Purple,” the misting rainbow in “Beauty” — like a miniature, indoors “waterfall.”
Which is one reason kids will find these a blast.
And now, onto the video. In this episode of Think, Olafur Eliasson discusses the current exhibition with host Krys Boyd. Click on the logo to watch the video:
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Think airs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. on KERA (Channel 13). It airs again Wednesday at 1:30 a.m.
Fake Spiral image from jamesmerry.co.uk
Tunnel image: Stephen Becker