Cotter on Eliasson

Holland Cotter’s review of Olafur Eliasson‘s show (, April 18, 2008 ) at the MOMA and PS1 includes elegant observations.

Eliasson’s art is highly perceptual, often involving optical illusions, so the viewer’s task is refreshingly straightforward. Cotter explains:

…like certain kinds of jazz, or ragas, or New Age ambient sound, this is an art of variation rather than destination. It lays out a visual theme, then asks you to wait, watch, wait some more and discover things happening.

Check this out. Poke your head in here. Slow down.

I think viewer-centered experiential art can be very generous to viewers, but Cotter susses out a nuanced indifference:

Like abstract painting, Mr. Eliasson’s art can be slow to reveal itself. In an installation called “Beauty” a rainbow emerges from a curtain of mist and vanishes. Maybe you see it; maybe you don’t.

I really enjoyed Eliasson’s show at the SFMOMA. First, I was proud that a the first retrospective of such an important contemporary artist was organized in our home city. Second, it was a surefire crowd-pleaser. The exhibition reminded me of San Francisco’s Exploratorium—light, color, play, wonder—but where the Exploratorium is dark, whirring, and a little musty and nostalgic, Eliasson’s show was bright, contemplative, straight as an arrow.

It’s a fun, pleasurable show, that appeals directly to audience members, regardless of what they think of or know about contemporary art. I can’t remember the last time I could whole-heartedly endorse a show for artists and non-artists alike.

Still, Cotter’s a professional, and he offers one more insight:

A fair amount of his work, in a witty way, is about disruption and disorientation. Rooms tilt; doors are not doors. At P.S. 1 a waterfall flows upward; a rotating metal fan, propelled by its own wind power, swings from a cable, just above head height, in MoMA’s atrium. This is art that teases and even, a little, humiliates, as we hesitate before the false doors, or are blinded by flashing lights, or duck the buzzing fan.

That hint of not-niceness is a crucial ingredient in Mr. Eliasson’s audience-pleasing art. It keeps it from being too sappy or flashy, all disco balls and special effects.

Maybe Cotter’s petting makes the following slap sting so much more:

And how radical is Mr. Eliasson’s art? How market-challenging or expectation-shifting? In the end — so far — not terribly. “Take Your Time” looks anomalous enough in an object-fetish moment…. At the same time the work is too intent on appealing to our appetite for passive sensation and too readily adapted to corporate design….

The writer goes on to contrast Eliasson’s enchanting work with directly political work associated with PS1’s “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution.”

I believe good art is good art, regardless of politics. So when Cotter says that

In others ways, though, [Eliasson’s show] reminds us how far in the current decade art has not come.

I am skeptical of the validity of this criteria for judging an exhibition. Certainly contemporary arts should consider the political implications of their positions, but the prospect that art exhibitions — particularly individual shows — are barometers of political progress is a little frightening. As an individual artist, my thinking may be self-centered or conventional here, but I think progress can be measured with more quantitative data in the galleries neighboring Eliasson’s shows — namely, displays from museums’ permanent collections.


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