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.