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.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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