Olafur Eliason took my time

by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on 2010-01-10 at Carnivalaskew.com

I went to see Ola­fur Elias­son the other day.  I’m sorry, but this is begin­ning to look like another fuck­ing art blog.  I was con­sid­er­ing writ­ing about how I ended up in the hos­pi­tal on Christ­mas day with sus­pected gall stones and a good 10 CCs of mor­phine for my trou­bles — how think­ing about the pain as I waited in the wait­ing room  before being seen made me spec­u­late about tor­ture, and how much worse my pain would be if it were expe­ri­enced in a con­text that offered me no hope of relief and no sense of con­cern from the peo­ple around me.  Later, as I con­tin­ued my spec­u­la­tions under the influ­ence of the mor­phine, which didn’t relieve me of my pain but put me at a dis­tance from it and made me a bit nau­seous, the drugs min­gled with the hor­ror of (the thought of) being tor­tured and I became fairly con­vinced that human exis­tence was a mixed bag of suf­fer­ing and futil­ity and really the Ora­cle at Del­phi had it right, if we can’t achieve that ideal of never being born, then the next best thing would be to die quickly. The next morn­ing I woke up no worse for wear and wan­dered back into the world.

But then I decided I really didn’t want you to know that much about me, so I thought I’d write about Ola­fur Elias­son instead.

Of course we can see why this show is here. Other than the bril­liant rep­u­ta­tion of the artist and his art, it is an obvi­ous choice after the block­buster suc­cess of Yayoi Kusama’s “Mir­rored Years”, fol­low­ing which we can safely assume that large scale immer­sive envi­ron­men­tal instal­la­tion reliant on high con­cept opti­cal effects would be all the rage, and a damn safe bet for the insti­tu­tion pay­ing for it.  Well it was a safe bet, wasn’t it?  And I have no doubt the show was a com­plete suc­cess, mostly because what I’ve just described can apply as nicely to a trav­el­ing carni or a block­buster movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the car­ni­val; its where I go for my large scale immer­sive envi­ron­men­tal instal­la­tion reliant on high con­cept opti­cal affects, kicks — but it was just a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing in the MCA.  I mean, where was the smell of horse shit?  Oh… its con­cep­tual…  Sorry, I didn’t mean that.  I like con­cep­tual, and frankly that was one of the reason’s for my dis­ap­point­ment.  I couldn’t find much thought in what I was expe­ri­enc­ing — beyond the tech­ni­cal bril­liance, and inno­v­a­tive imag­i­na­tion that informed the entire bag of tricks, I found myself wan­der­ing from room to room, open­ing my mouth in a big O and say­ing “oooo” and then walk­ing out with­out think­ing any­thing much.  In fact, the over­all impres­sion I came away from the show with was a sense that I had just vis­ited a trade fair for con­tem­po­rary artists.  Every­thing had the sense of being pro­to­typ­i­cal, and on dis­play not for its own sake, but as a poten­tial that some­one who actu­ally had some­thing to say might pick up and use one day.  In con­trast, for instance, Kusama’s mir­rored rooms had the same tech­ni­cal bril­liance, but the effects achieved were employed toward gen­er­at­ing mean­ing — ie, an image of the infi­nite that was at exactly the same time a cheap and obvi­ous trick with faery lights.  I loved Eliasson’s yel­low room, it was incred­i­ble to see peo­ple stand­ing within it turn mono­chrome.  But after I mar­veled at what my eye is hard wired to expe­ri­ence, I turned and walked on to the next dis­trac­tion.  Another of Eliasson’s works which could have worked for me, a spotlit water­fall room, which was ele­giac in its sim­plic­ity and at least had about it that com­ment we can draw from what would oth­er­wise have been a com­mon expe­ri­ence, had been ruined by my expe­ri­ence of nearly the same work in Pri­mav­era by the Aus­tralian artist Michaela Gleave which was so sin­cere in its min­i­mal­is­tic aus­ter­ity, in the hon­est poverty of its means that it made Eliasson’s work seem slick and bur­dened by its high pro­duc­tion val­ues, remind­ing me of some bad expe­ri­ences I’ve had in front of a Bill Viola or two.  As I walked away, my brain hum­ming from the sen­sory stim­uli over­load, I couldn’t really fault the artist.  They weren’t great works in my opin­ion, but cer­tainly they did what the brochure adver­tised, and some of them were fas­ci­nat­ing enough to war­rant blow­ing 15 bucks.  Hell, I’d do that for a block­buster movie when all I want is to sub­ject myself to … oh, don’t make me say it again… but when I come to the MCA I want to be made and chal­lenged to think, not just stim­u­lated and tit­il­lated.   What really ruined the show for me was the inescapable sense of trans­par­ent cal­cu­la­tion behind it, the lin­ger­ing sus­pi­cion that this was an attempt to cash in on a for­mula.  I was going to say that thank­fully for­mu­las don’t work quite as well in the art world as they do in Hol­ly­wood, but that would have been a stu­pid thing to say.