Olafur Eliasson, "Beauty," 1993. Fresnel lamp, water, nozzles, hose, wood, and pump; dimensions variable. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, purchased with funds provided by Paul Frankel. 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.

Within an institutional setting, this apparent liberation of desire initially appears transgressive. Visitors engage physically and playfully with their environment, creating an active atmosphere that is a departure from the usual somberness of a museum. It is this apparent transgression that constitutes Eliasson’s radical agency. However, because the desires being liberated are directly aroused by the deliberate manipulations of the exhibition itself, they cannot actually be transgressive. Since this transgression engendered by Eliasson’s work is mostly of an aesthetic nature, the agency of the viewer is actually neutralized rather than radicalized.

This neutralized agency resembles that of the embodied avatar, restricted to predictable and appropriate responses to prompts embedded in an environment. In the exhibition, interactivity is not creative, it is prescribed: it expresses the pre-coded meaning of the constructed environment. Though his environments are concrete, Eliasson inadvertently virtualizes agency. Although exhorted by the artist to Take your time and engage authentically and thoughtfully, the artwork actually discourages inappropriate responses. This discouragement is augmented within an institutional context where authority is ever present. In Beauty, docents direct viewers not to linger in the mist. An orderly line corrals visitors awaiting their one-minute allotment inside Space Reversal (2007), a mirrored promontory overlooking the city in which the viewer’s reflection infinitely recedes. These and any number of other imperatives to touch or not touch, enter or wait, look but don’t loiter all prioritize legal and social protocols, and suppress an authentic, imaginative engagement with the work.

The relational structure of the avatar in virtual reality is also problematic in its centralization. Its coerced whims and pleasures (those prescribed, appropriate responses) are alone central to, and indeed drive the work. As in a virtual reality, the desires of non-viewers in the environment are marginalized and delegitimized. The hierarchical dynamic is certainly problematic within Eliasson’s oeuvre, ostensibly designed to induce radically democratic participation.

Olafur Eliasson, "One-Way Colour Tunnel," 2007. Stainless steel, color-effect acrylic, and acrylic mirror; 100 3/4 x 70 7/8 x 413 3/8 inches (256 x 180 x 1,050 cm). Courtesy the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and Neugerriemschneider, Berlin. 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.

Olafur Eliasson, "One-Way Colour Tunnel," 2007. Stainless steel, color-effect acrylic, and acrylic mirror; 100 3/4 x 70 7/8 x 413 3/8 inches (256 x 180 x 1,050 cm). Courtesy the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and Neugerriemschneider, Berlin. 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.

Moss Wall (1994) discourages such progressive engagement in this way. In this piece, an exotic, vast sheet of living reindeer moss is installed over a wall’s entirety. The viewer is seduced by its sweet, animal scent and subtly blushing and paling complexion. However, as in any traditional Western seduction, the object allures through its opacity and obscurity. Within such a relationship, any expressive agency it might have as a desiring, creative, relational being is silenced by decontextualization. While it’s problematic to speak in terms of a plant’s desire, it is perhaps more so not to consider it at all. The marginalization of desire itself is at stake. Here, “nature” is thus deployed as a signifier stimulating creative agency. However, it remains merely aesthetic, never surmounting its “otherness.” In this manner, Moss Wall inadvertently reproduces, rather than subverts, the traditionally oppressive modes of relation between subject and object, or self and other.

The insistence on a centralized field of experience is reinforced and expanded within Model Room (2003). This site affects an archive ambiance, preserving and displaying the theoretical and technical procedures of the artist. Delicate models of orbs and fractals in crystalline permutations express complex and exact calculations undertaken by Eliasson. Assorted shelves are neat, but with the precise degree of clutter to suggest the labor of a beautiful mind. The atmosphere of the environment is diorama-like. It feels like a meticulously reconstructed workspace functioning, perhaps unintentionally, as a coherent piece in itself. The subject of this piece is its implied master. It is a revelation of the ultimately central subject—the artist—who is empowered to determine and ascribe stable meanings to the objectified field of his work. His omnipotence in ordering our experience paradoxically undermines his objective to stimulate the viewer’s agency in producing meaning.

Olafur Eliasson is an empiricist medium. Through a process of divination, he provides “devices for the experience of reality” purportedly to awaken an alienated and apathetic audience. Unfortunately, as his own agency in generating these experiences expands, the agency of the viewer contracts to the point of virtuality. Throughout this exhibition, the desire of the viewer is calculatedly engendered. Moreover, its response is anticipated, surveilled and controlled. Because the visitor’s participation is prescribed and pre-coded, participation is a fallacy. Satiated by false agency, the viewer suppresses any radical impulses. Political agency must not be understood as this kind of coerced cooperation. Instead, it must be a practice claiming criticality, subversion, and even refusal among its prerogatives. Otherwise, the political artwork remains a harmless monster shouting empty threats from above, its own agency reduced to the dramatic posturing of neutralized dissent.1

Elizabeth Sims teaches Art History and Painting in Southern California

Footnotes

  1. The term “harmless monster” can be attributed to Octavio Paz, who first used it in his 1963 essay, “Price and Meaning.” [Essays on Mexican Art (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 292.] Paz argues that the success of an artist depends on complicity with marketing and institutional demands. Under these conditions, political dissent is reduced to “novelty that is mass-produced” and rebellion that does not scare anyone. “Price and Meaning” foreshadows contemporary arguments for the potency of artistic dissent that remains possible only outside traditional economic and institutional models. More than forty years after its publication, it seems fitting to apply the term to Olafur Elliason’s Take your time, yet another project that fails in its objective to liberate political agency in part because it must concede to the legal and social requirements of the institution.
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