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Engaging personalities

Olafur Eliasson's works invite viewer involvement. So walk right up. Move around. The pieces might respond. Then what?

September 23, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — OLAFUR ELIASSON wants you. And not as a passive spectator. He wants you to be a "co-producer" of his light-filled environments, walk-in kaleidoscopes and fleeting rainbows.

The Icelandic artist calls his works "devices for the experience of reality" and invites active participation. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the site of his first big American survey, he offers plenty of opportunities.

In one darkened gallery, you can make wave-like lines on a big screen by stepping on loose floorboards. In a couple of other locations, you can poke your head into a mirrored window box that seems to bring the city into the museum. As you make your way through the exhibition of 22 works made from 1993 to 2007, you can also inhale the aroma of a wall carpeted with arctic moss, think about perspective in a room divided by shifting light, and blink through purple afterimages created by a gallery drenched in yellow.

"I want to introduce a way that the body as well as the mind can, by engaging, create language," Eliasson says in a conversation at the museum. Working with what he calls "dematerialized phenomena," such as light, space and color, he intends to free his audience from old-fashioned ideas about art as objects. "Stressing the phenomenon emphasizes the quality of the spectator's engagement," he says.

Like Southern California's Light and Space artists, Eliasson uses ephemeral effects and intangible materials to generate emotional responses, but he doesn't hide the hardware used to produce them. What he's after is a condition of awareness that he calls "seeing yourself seeing."

In "Beauty," a seminal piece made in 1993, viewers who stand in the right place and peer through mist see a rainbow. They also see a hose and nozzles, pump and lamp.

Half this, half that

Curator Madeleine Grynsztejn, who spent several years organizing Eliasson's exhibition, describes his work as "50% wow and 50% aha! -- 50% wonder and 50% showing you how it's done."

One of her favorite examples is "One-way colour tunnel," a kaleidoscope-like tunnel that encapsulates a catwalk high above the museum lobby. People who walk through it in one direction see a black structure; observed from the opposite direction, it's multicolored. A mixture of high- and low-tech, the tunnel is made of triangular reflective acrylic panels, tied -- by hand -- to a stainless steel framework. "To my mind, this piece represents the absolute moment we live in, a kind of parallel existence of the virtual and physical realms," Grynsztejn says. "This could not have been done without a computer. It looks like it popped straight out of an iPod, and yet there's the human touch. We shop online in the morning and at Whole Foods in the afternoon. Olafur has found a visual language that represents that."

The point of getting people involved in his work, Eliasson says, is to help them reach a heightened state of consciousness and self-awareness -- and gain a sense of belonging.

"If I give spectators the responsibility of what is real in a show like this, I would think they would feel respected," he says. "They are allowed to decide what they see. They can feel that they are taken seriously and make more out of the experience. This is what I mean by spectators being co-producers; we share responsibility. By respecting individuality you can generate a language of community. When every individual makes their own exhibition, we can create a kind of collective experience."

Whatever that experience may be, he says, it is deeply affected by the amount of time spent with the artworks. Hence the exhibition title, "Take your time: Olafur Eliasson."

"Museums are invested in stopping time," he says. "They are invested in their endowments and collections, and they are not supposed to undermine them by introducing a new phenomenological social agenda where everything is proportionate to the way you engage with it. I would argue that the quality of the 'Mona Lisa' is proportionate to the way you engage with it, but that is completely not in the interest of the Louvre. But here we have a museum and a show called 'Take your time,' to give back time to the spectator. It's as profound as that. Or it's as simple as that. The idea is that you should introduce the type of slowness that you please -- take back individual time, not for egocentric reasons but to sustain collectivity and community. You cannot define a sense of individuality if you don't belong to a community. What's the point of being an individual alone?"

Outside the lines

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