Take your time: Olafur Eliasson

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA
Elizabeth Sims

A buzzing electric fan is suspended by a thin wire that glints sharply as it swings in drastic, erratic arcs through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s soaring foyer. Visitors to Olafur Eliasson: Take your time duck, run, laugh and shudder as they are greeted by this self-propelled office relic, which is at once ridiculous and menacing as it dive-bombs the public headspace. Ventilator (1997) opens the show, though its violent arabesque has been circumscribed for the survey to a few feet above its original shoulder height, a gesture that disarms the piece. Still, this rebellious enigma elicits a range of responses, proceeding from anxiety to bravado, which foreshadows the experiential scope offered by the show.

Olafur Eliasson, "Ventilator," 1997. Altered fan with cable; dimensions variable. Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California. Installation view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson;" Photo: Ian Reeves, courtesy SFMoMA; © 2007 Olafur Eliasson.

Here, viewers are posited as participants and beguiled into pleasure seeking and play. They can expect to be turned yellow, to be rained on, and to walk through a kaleidoscope. There will be more than one opportunity to experience vertigo. Tapping theories about the liberation of desire as radical practice, Take your time seeks to awaken viewers’ agency by providing what Eliasson calls “devices for the experience of reality.” The show’s catalog describes the political potential implicit in this experience as an invitation “not only to actively shape your experience of the show, but also to assume greater responsibility for your present and future role in personal and civic life.”

Eliasson’s well-known, operatic constructions of artificial nature are consciously designed to stimulate agency, to encourage viewers to act upon desire. These contrived yet alluring settings usually give something, such as light, scent or heat, which prompts a similarly generous engagement by the viewer. This dynamic reflects the artist’s exploitation of the societal association between nature and playful creativity. As children, many receive the imperative to “go outside and play.” In the Western psyche, the outdoors are the kingdom of the imagination, an ever-expanding horizon of possibility in which the id might be given free reign to yawp. Eliasson seems to want to bring these outdoors in and foment such radical play, and to thus occupy the institutional space and subvert its prescribed behaviors.

In Notion motion (2005), visitors enter a darkened room illuminated only by a dusky projection of rippling water on the surface of a pool. The space echoes with the creaking of gently seesawing floorboards which make low, rusty cries under the steps of visitors. The attention of the viewer is initially consumed by bodily awareness. With each step, the soft falling and settling of weight is reminiscent the experience of walking over a buoyed harbor dock. However, as more intrepid or antagonistic visitors begin to test the limits of the environment by bouncing more vigorously from one plank to another, louder creaks and squeals reverberate throughout the room. At this point, the projection begins to tremble with almost seismic register as bolder and more rapid waves ripple in tandem with the activity on the floor.

This interactivity suggests the dynamic of an avatar navigating a “virtual reality.” Initially a disembodied vessel, an avatar is embodied by an individual so that its environment may be performed through his or her actions. Eliasson reproduces such a dynamic in order to emphasize the required complicity of the viewer in the production of the work’s meaning. As in a virtual reality, even though the mechanism by which the viewer operates Notion motion is obscure, her crucial role in operating it is accentuated.

Olafur Eliasson, "Notion Motion," 2005. HMI spotlights, tripods, water, projection foil,wood, nylon, and sponge; dimensions variable. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, on loan from The HF Mecenaat. Installation view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson;" Photo: Ian Reeves, courtesy SFMoMA; © 2007 Olafur Eliasson.

Pointedly, the room following Notion motion is simply its inversion, revealing the water-filled pool, a few wires, and the projector that constitute its previously hidden mechanism. Through this inversion, the viewer’s participation with the work is demystified, and virtuality’s basis in the concrete is affirmed. Notion motion is a demonstration of how Eliasson encourages the viewer to recognize the reality of each individual’s action even in the alienating sphere of contemporary society. The political implication here seems to be a directive from the artist to throw off the paralysis of spectatorship and to realize and actively practice agency.

In Beauty (1993), a soft mist lit to a fine radiance descends ethereally from the ceiling of a darkened room. Visitors cluster around the walls, breathing in the moist air and watching the fine spray of water as it falls in waves to the floor. From a classically Minimalist perspective, Beauty brings the viewer into the present. Awareness of breath, of skin, and of the permeability of body and environment are heightened. Encouraged by this generous presence, a few visitors approach the work. Some dip a hand into its concentrated body, while others dare to walk through it completely. Desire is roused and liberated at once.

Further Reading