Pleasantville at the museum

The Danish-Iicelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is a hot property just now, and his penchant for flashy displays and gigantic scale can quicken the animus of those art purists who lament such a vulgar debasement of standards. Most all installation art is open to such strictures, as are the grandiose manifestations of earth art out in the trackless American west. I love the best of such work, but I have an operatic sensibility.

That said, Eliasson is pretty special, as affirmed by his "Weather" installation at the Tate Modern, the talk of London for its entire run (two years?). Now he has a show at both the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and its Queens adjunct, P. S. 1. I haven't been out to Queens yet -- the plan is for this Thursday -- but I want to write now about one part of the MOMA show. It consists of a room (a hallway, actually) bathed in yellow ligfht.

So it's yellow; so what? But soon you realize that this yellow light has the property of bleaching out color and turning everything gray. At one end you can stand in the middle of the light, feeling rather like a character in "Star Man" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" being drawn up into the mothership by light beams, and watch innocent museum-goers wander across a kind of platform or bridge and enter into the yellow zone. You see them, still bathed in natural light, with their red dresses and blue scarves, and as they enter the yellow all that bleeds into gray. Skin colors, too: white people and black people and even yellow people become gray people.

It is very, very strange. Thrilling, maybe, but scary, too; creepy. Whether grandiose social conclusons can be drawn from all this, that we are all brothers under the skin and such, I know not. It's hard to extract an optimistic message when everyone looks like a corpse. But it, and other optical tricks that Eliasson plays upon the willing viewer, are pretty striking. I suppose the more profound question is whether this is art or optics, something meaningful or something merely tricky. All I can say is that if you seek an unsettling experience, check out the third floor of MOMA. 


May 27, 2008 1:02 PM | | Comments (3)


I was not overly impressed with Olafur Eliasson's work at MOMA. It was OK but I preferred the Glossolia drawing show and the Bookshelf book art show. But it was fun. I especially liked the little kids I saw running around under the fan on the ground floor lobby or wherever that big room is one can look down on. But the rest? Is it art or optics? Who cares?! Ask Duchamp. This is old news.

But the yellow hallway knocked me out. I didn't care that it made people's skin gray. What blew me away was it made everything monochromatic--into "black and white" and I loved that. I am still impressed and it has been weeks. That was one of the great pieces of art of the 21st century! And the simplicity was part of the charm. A simple elegant idea, clearly expressed. The more unsuspecting people riding the escalator up into its magic, the clearer and more elegant it becomes.

Sometimes one good idea is all it takes to get someone into the art pantheon and for Olafur Eliasson, this was it.

I was there this weekend and loved the installation, just as much as I loved the 'The Weather Project', and for the same reason: conscious shaping of space changes the way people relate to each other. Dramatic shaping changes it dramatically!

Is it meaningful? Think of all that is contructed upon our visual foundation, notions of beauty and attraction, power relations stemming from visual cues, etc. Strip the foundation, or rather move it to the side, and we become conscious of all that depends upon the length of a few waves of pulsating energy.

Tenuous and beautiful.

I don't care if it is yellow or gray or creepy- it's fantastic!

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