Art & Development

Eliasson on spectatorship and perceptual experiences in galleries

One of the predominant tropes of the artists in Il Tempo del Postino is their assertion of the socialising and empowering agency of art, which has long been an aim of theatre of the left, from Brecht to Invisible Theatre, developed by Augusto Boal in the 1970s, when social-issue plays were staged in public places, such as shopping centres, often drawing nonperformers, or ‘spect-actors’, into the debate….

The efforts of a number of these artists to orchestrate socialising contexts have been criticised in recent years for being patronising or for actually stultifying exchange.

[Stultifying? See Ranciere.]

A distinguishing factor of Eliasson’s work, though, is that he doesn’t consider language the primary socialising agent. His installations and events operate on the audience’s sensory perception, prompting not a conversational exchange but a subjective psychophysical experience. Although, as Eliasson points out, there is no unmediated neutral state of perception in a gallery, as by definition any aesthetic proposition demands sensory manipulation, he tends to expand effect beyond optical or linguistic cognition. Utopian claims for art creating solidarity through authentic communal discourse become redundant when the subjectivity of perception becomes the means as well as the subject of an artwork. Collectivity, suggests Eliasson, is more about the production of difference, and yet there remains a misperception that representation in the form of language creates a productive space, when in fact it simply describes a space that remains uninhabited. As it was for eighteenth-century romantic ironists, such as August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, for Eliasson it is the employment of the gap between representation and the actual world, between the sun and the evocation of a sun or an audience and their reconstruction, that generates poetic effect.

Sally O’Reilly, “Olafur Eliasson: Time is on his side,” Art Review, September 14, 2007


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