Olafur Eliasson, 360 degree Room for All Colors, 2002, at MoMA

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993, at P.S.1

There has been so much written about Olafur Eliasson lately that I’m reluctant to bother, but his major dual-venue exhibition compels me to contribute my 2 cents. The show is called “Take Your Time”, which is not just a title, but a directive – a prescription for how to operate in the presence of this work. Indeed many of the pieces involve a process that unfolds in time, changes that take place over a given duration, and can only be fully experienced if the viewer remains engaged through the whole process. But for many other pieces, the time element occurs in the viewer’s consciousness rather than in the work itself. These works are embodiments of various phenomena which, like many aspects of actual reality, are insignificant or invisible to the inattentive, or the impatient. Central to this work is the conviction that resonance originates in the viewer’s consciousness and experience, that the viewer is responsible for generating meaning – the work is just the catalyst.

There is an intriguing tension in this show between the ephemeral nature of much of the work, and the environment of high-end entertainment engendered by the Modern (though at P.S.1 the work seems much more at home). In addition to the work itself, the viewer is confronted with the gamut of human interactions, interventions, and interruptions in the process of navigating through the crowds at this popular show. For some (and their young children), it is a playground. Others bob in and out of the rooms looking for the “art”. Many are primarily interested in getting cool photos of themselves in proximity to the various environments. A few are quietly hanging out in each room, watching, absorbing, being. It is a true microcosm of human behavior in relation to natural phenomena, or maybe for that matter in relation to art.

It’s amazing that, for instance, a room filled with intense yellow light can be so fascinating to so many people. I think it is the direct simplicity of the gesture that makes it so palatable – placing emphasis on actual physical experience rather than on Art (the museum setting notwithstanding). By altering a fundamental element of reality (color), Eliasson is drawing us in like moths to flame – enticing us to examine the difference, to speculate, to feel. Each individual will of course have a different experience, sense a different value, feel a different intensity. But it is the potential awareness, the optimistic possibility that our action as viewers may produce a fundamental change in the nature or structure of our reality that seems to be at the heart of Eliasson’s work.