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The spectacle subverted

Olafur Eliasson's San Francisco exhibition transforms museum observation into participation.

September 12, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Reminiscent of the advertising sensibility of Barbara Kruger, it also underscores the political dimension of a spectacular shift away from passivity toward sensory action. So does his use of Pop-colored crystalline forms, which recall Robert Smithson's earliest mirrored wall-reliefs.

Eliasson's sources are diverse. One surprise is how cinematic his art can be.

It's self-evident in "360° room for all colours," a walk-in panorama. This high, encircling white wall is blank, rather than painted with a dramatic scene like a 19th century panorama would be. Behind the scrim, colored lights are programmed to run randomly through the spectrum -- sometimes in an intensity so bright as to cause you to squint. Overloaded retinas produce squiggling afterimages.

Painted panoramas anticipated the modern motion picture, while Eliasson's immersive installation is post-Imax. The enchantment is old-fashioned, the effect contemporary.

Among the best works is a theatrical arc lamp trained on a suspended acrylic disk, rotating in space at variable speed thanks to a motor attached to the ceiling. When light passes through the disk, a sulfurous circle is projected on the far wall.

That cautionary yellow, an Eliasson favorite, is like the acrid lighting in an urban highway tunnel. Light reflected off the disk creates a contrasting purple circle, which slides around the room's walls as the disk rotates.

When the purple circle gets to the far wall, it turns bright white. The yellow circle simultaneously goes black. Both effects are basic optics, generated by the angle of the suspended disk in relation to the light source. But magic suddenly happens, as the white light passes through the blackness with a dramatic visual snap.

Just as your eye and brain are responding to what's happened, the moving circle of light passes across your body. In the shared spotlight, the unexpected urge to tap dance, "Sing out, Louise!" or otherwise perform is strong.

"Space reversal," a magnificent two-part installation, is the most Hollywood-dependent piece of all. Hitchcock's "Vertigo" meets Paddy Chayefsky's "Network."

A stair leads to a narrow platform abutting a floor-to-ceiling window, overlooking the parking lot five stories below. Surrounded by mirrors overhead, beneath your feet and to the right and left, you see yourself reflected into woozy infinity on a ledge above San Francisco, like traumatized Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's tower.

Across the narrow gallery, a square window punched into the wall faces into blackness. Stick your head through and, again, surrounding mirrors reflect you into a nighttime infinity. The reflection turns a single window into a multitude, like an enormous apartment building filled with people poking their heads out. It's as if you're following Howard Beale's frantic command to rush to the window and shout, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Nausea and refusal -- the political quotient in Eliasson's art speaks to our present historical moment in sharp, compelling and unanticipated ways. His subversion of the powerful entertainment spectacle shows an incisive understanding of the L.A. aesthetic of Light and Space, which after all was born in the belly of the beast.



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