Olafur Eliasson: Liaison Between the Viewer and the Viewed

Posted in art by Anna on June 9, 2009

2007-11-29-OneWayTunnelsized                  I have a very vivid memory of my first encounter with modern art.  It was back in the days of elementary school, on a family trip, at the National Gallery in Washington D.C…  I stepped on a strip of rubber on the museum floor, only to be informed by my father that I was standing on a piece from the museum collection.  Ever since this encounter I have always tried to be very respectful of the boundaries between a work of art, and its viewer.  Olafur Eliasson, however, appears to be aiming to completely destroy any sense of traditional art/viewer divisions in his experiential installation exhibit currently on display at the MCA entitled Take Your Time.

                  The major difference between Eliasson, and any traditional artist, is that his pieces are not something you see, they are something you experience.  You cannot simply look at his work: you are confronted by it, immersed in it.  It submerges, surrounds, and encapsulates the viewer demanding interaction.  One such example of this is a gallery wall which is completely covered with live moss, fittingly titled “Moss wall” (1994).  The moss dominates the gallery, creating a calm aura with its serene and eternal growth, but a large part of its intrigue is that it’s so bizarre.  The moss wall is flanked by ordinary, sparse white gallery walls, leaving the viewer with the feeling that they’ve stumbled across a small piece of a magical forest in the middle of an industrial warehouse.  Similarly enchanting and absurd is Eliasson’s earliest featured work, “Beauty” (1993), which is staged in a room which is pitch black, with the exception of a thin, soft, spotlight which filters through a light mist of water.  The presence of something so mystical and so natural in a room with floors which are clearly made of rubber is again, both jarring and delightful, as is Eliasson’s request that we play along, and really engage with his work.  This kind of give and take is also essential to any enjoyment of his kaleidoscope pieces, “One-way colour tunnel” (2007) and “Multiple Grotto” (2004), enormous structures which the viewer literally must step into in order to experience the surrealism of colored glass panels, and playful, seemingly natural, filtering light.

                  By asking the contemporary viewer to participate and engage with his work, Eliasson proves that art need not sit pretentiously on a pedestal to be great.  In fact, it leaves a startling and enchanting impression when placed in the hands (and under the feet) of the viewer.


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