Art & Development

Schjeldahl on Eliasson: It’s grand, phenomenological. We love to hate it.

What are these works, besides fun? Perhaps not much, in themselves. They are choice instances of institutionally parasitic art that exists only because space-rich, audience-hungry museums and Kunsthallen must fill their schedules with something, and preferably not the inefficiently small and expensively insured objects that are traditional paintings and sculptures. I have been unhappy with the reign of such circusy manifestations, which are called into being less by anyone’s desire than as fulfillments of a job description. (Our jobs constrict us. Art should give us compensatory glimpses of freedom.) But there is a lyrical aura to any job that is done really well, and Eliasson routinely distills that aura into a Platonic essence of know-how and impeccable execution. The effect is generous and perhaps salubriously contagious. (Let’s all be better at what we do!) But the clincher, for me, is the negative virtue of Eliasson’s matter-of-factness, which more than refreshes in a type of art that commonly features strenuous myth and message. He refrains from burdening us with implications of mystical portent—a weak suit of intermittently impressive artist-shamans from Joseph Beuys to Matthew Barney—or, like hosts of the politically righteous, with exhortations to improve our moral hygiene. Eliasson isn’t entirely immune to social-therapeutic rhetoric—that would be asking a lot of a Scandinavian—as witness the nudgy title “Take Your Time.” (I will do as I please with my time, thanks.) But when he works, he is all honesty.

From “Uncluttered: An Olafur Eliasson retrospective,” by Peter Schjeldahl. New Yorker Magazine. April 28, 2008

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