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Take your time. This nonchalant turn of phrase generously requests that one does not make haste. In the context of Olafur Eliasson’s major survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney, its meaning becomes loaded. The artist, the museum and the curator have given back to the viewer who is now encouraged to freely look, linger and contemplate.
Olafur Eliasson (b.1967, Copenhagen) is known for exploring nature and science, the organic versus the artificial, and for his critique of the museum institution’s mediation of the experience of the work of art for the viewer. The installation and presentation of art in the museum site is crucial to the reception of and participation in his work. (Noticeably throughout this exhibition there are no distracting wall texts or labels, but rather a printed program.)
Eliasson’s ability to transform the museum space into an experience of total sensory immersion can best be seen in Room for one colour (1997) and 360° room for all colours (2002). Room for one colour consists of an object-free room. From the ceiling, mono-frequency lamps emit light at such a narrow frequency that all colours other than yellow and purple are invisible. The effect is a screamingly intense, yellow space dense with thick hue. Neurologically, one compensates by seeing purple tinges. The physical response is corporeal, active and nauseating; one sees yellow, sees oneself seeing only yellow, becomes aware of other viewers’ similar experiences and attempts to understand this unfolding encounter.
Eliasson describes this moment of perception, when the viewer pauses to consider what they are experiencing, as ‘seeing yourself seeing’. He explains: ‘It’s a double action: you “see” and you “see yourself seeing”…you immerse yourself in something—visually or with more of your senses—while being aware of that immersion; you hold an internal and external perspective on the situation at one and the same time. And as you constantly evaluate the nature of what you see, you as co-producer become responsible for your experience’. For Eliasson, participation and active engagement with the artwork is crucial in its completion.
This effect also occurs in 360° room for all colours—a floor-to-ceiling, circular enclosure lined with semi-translucent fabric that covers fluorescents projecting coloured light back into the space. Over time, the room subtly moves through the spectrum in subdued tones; white turns to purple, then green, blue, orange, yellow, pink and back again. The result is meditative; yet the vast space would be best experienced in complete solitude to fully contemplate the sensory effect without distraction.
Interestingly, at the MCA not all of the installations are compulsory, many are optional encounters and one can choose not to enter. Whereas, at the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and PS1, Room for one colour was positioned so that the viewer was forced to walk through the yellow space, thus influencing their experience of what was located beyond. One-way colour tunnel (2007), which uses the principles of geometry and the refraction of light on coloured acrylic mirror to create dazzling kaleidoscopic effects, is the only artwork that the viewer is forced to participate in.
It is Eliasson’s sophisticated ability to harness fleeting elements such as the weather—rain, mist, fog, temperature or light—space and nature inside a museum context that prompts reflection of the physical world. Other of Eliasson’s ephemeral and spectacular projects of renown include The weather project (2003) at the Tate Modern and also The New York City Waterfalls (2008). At the MCA Eliasson has once again brought the outside world in, evidenced in Moss wall (1994) and Beauty (1993). One encounters Moss wall before Beauty, which cleverly sets up a dialogue of sensory engagement between the two installations. The viewer smells Moss wall before they see it; damp, earthy scent permeates the surrounding adjacent spaces. The work comprises an entire wall covered in Scandinavian reindeer moss, which will apparently grow and subtly change in colour and shape over time. This is questionable, however.
Walking past Moss wall into Beauty, the scent travels, the temperature drastically lowers and the gentle sound of a sprinkler can be heard. Inside the enclosed, darkened space lined with black rubber, misty rain falls to the floor from a ceiling hose. White light shines onto the moving water creating an ethereal rainbow effect, the perception and experience of which is affected by movement and the viewer’s position in the space. The senses are active—one can feel the humidity, smell the water, hear the spray and touch the drops or even submerse oneself in it.
By bringing elements of the natural world into the museum in an attempt to harness their atmospheric quality, Eliasson creates a dialogue between the interior and exterior worlds, what is artificial and what is organic, what is real and what is perceived. However, it is his intended display of the work’s production methods and processes that debunks any real illusions of mystique. Ultimately, Eliasson’s installations create sensory experiences that are constructed; his man-made spaces are spectacles in which the outside world is brought inside for contemplation over time.