The first full-scale survey of Icelander Eliasson’s work in the U.S., Take Your Time functions well as an opportunity to take in the identity of someone who, for me, has often been hidden inside his art. Last summer, for instance, when I saw his waterfalls during a visit to New York, I could interact with them in a multitude of ways, but not with Eliasson himself. His creations tend to be simply “there,” seldom including expressive flourishes, whiffs of opinion and other things often associated with art. In eleven rooms at the MCA, though, Eliasson the designer-conductor begins to show through.
[He also spoke briefly before the press tour which helped, natch. The predictably stylish, reserved man stood at the podium and introduced his show by way of a surprisingly direct statement to the corps, saying that “the work starts to exist in anticipation of it” and the writing we would do about it would directly “influence the quality” of the show; he touched on a mantra often nearby his doings these days, “Your engagement has consequences.” Gentle as he seems to be, he’s also got a firm no-bullshit air about him that turned a two or three minute statement into a hefty chunk of idea on which to chew. I wish he would have agreed to accompany us through the exhibition (although the tour by Associate Curator Dominic Molon was appropriately done and blessedly chill).]
Madeleine Grynsztejn’s introduction focused my experience of the show in a productive way; she was Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA when this show débuted there, and obviously knows it and Eliasson inside and out (she also edited the accompanying catalogue). The key, as it is with Chicago choreographer Molly Shanahan, is that the work is “co-produced” by its observer, and in being viewed the research becomes complete. Grynsztejn stated that Eliasson returns the “gift of subjectivity” to his audience—my view would be that maintenance of subjectivity is the domain and responsibility of the individual, but I’m also not against anything that serves as a helpful reminder.
They’re beautiful reminders too, these pieces. I think Eliasson’s lynchpin is the potency of combining sensory overload with a soft, generous and kind touch. Photographs won’t do them justice—if you want to know about him and the art, just go to the MCA and be in it. In fact, with the exception of a chamber containing 2003’s Model room and four series of photographs from between 1997 and 2000, these are constructions designed around human scale, at which Eliasson works as a minimum. Formally, in fact, much of it recalls Richard Serra‘s and Frank Stella‘s recent sculptures in that they’re perched on the cusp between art and architecture (there’s also a nice nod, especially in Model room, to the extended-through-summer Buckminster Fuller show upstairs).
Is it too soft? When I think about art experiences that have profoundly impacted my life and work, I can’t say tenderness is a common thread. This of course is personal, and programmatically Take Your Time is the penultimate summer show: It encourages sensorial engagement with the world around you, which is rewarded much more positively when you return outdoors to cool Lake Michigan breezes and the olfactory cacophony of flowers, barbecues and exhuast. Room for one colour (1997) for example, is the only representative here of “almost too much”—the 22 overhead narrow-frequency bulbs (European streetlamps) in a long hall strip everything out except yellow and black; it isn’t painful, but it’s overwhelming and odd, recalls sterilization, biological hazards—even the Holocaust according to some—and holds you hostage for your time inside.
Other pieces in the show—360° room for all colours (2002), Colour space embracer (2005), Moss wall (1994)—are by no means basic or boring, but I kept returning to the question of who Olafur Eliasson is. He’s an artist who seeks to ensure the continued sacredness of the subjective experience, whose work requires my/your engagement with it, but is it enough to be reminded of your ability to see, think and smell? These constructions are shells for the soft body of being in the world, but most art I think of as significant take that as a given and move from there. Multiple grotto (2004) and Inverted Berlin sphere (2005) are large, beautiful objects only an artist could conceive of and build, but in a show billed as “radical” they feel like furniture. Having attended the premiere of Gary Hustwit’s Objectified earlier in the week, I went into Thursday’s preview hyper-aware of design, its tricks and languages, its ubiquity and its power.
1993’s Beauty, the oldest and most, well, beautiful work in the show, is a coup de coeur: A fine mist, something usually ancillary to another “main” experience [shopping for rutabaga at the grocery (as Molon put it), visiting a botanic garden] is isolated, magnified and stripped of all but its most essential and pleasurable qualities. Ditto Colour space embracer: It’s a blown-up extraction of the play on the wall of a prism hung in a window, or the accidental splash of spectrum bouncing through a glass of water. These are experiences one has all the time, part of life, the simple rewards of attention and patience. What’s interesting about Take Your Time is not how much they change when given a starring role, but how much they remain exactly the same.
Take Your Time will run at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 13.