Olafur Eliasson, Colour space embracer, 2005. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Chara Schreyer and the Accessions Committee Fund; photo: Jens Ziehe; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson.

Olafur Eliasson, The island series, 1997. Private collection; photo: Oren Slor; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson.

Olafur Eliasson’s White Album, a Moveable Feast for the Eyes

Olafur Eliasson, Reimagine, 2002. Installation view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of Take your time: Olafur Eliasson; photo: Ian Reeves, courtesy SFMOMA; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson, Room for one colour, 1997. Installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on the occasion of Take your time: Olafur Eliasson. Courtesy the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; photo by Nathan Keay; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator, 1997. Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California. Installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on the occasion of Take your time: Olafur Eliasson. Photo by Nathan Keay; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson.

Olafur Eliasson, One-way colour tunnel, 2007, Collection of the Art Supporting Foundation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson; Ian Reeves Photography, Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993, Installation view at AROS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, 2004; Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; photo: Poul Pedersen; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson.


Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue
Take your time: Olafur Eliasson
May 1-September 13, 2009


The art world consists of hundreds of talented individuals; but it subsists on their making new work out of older work in ever-tightening circles, until they seem to coexist with a handful of their greatest hits: Elizabeth Peyton’s painted portraits; Andreas Gursky’s oversize photographs; Richard Serra’s hundred-ton sculptures. There is much more to most artists — Serra, for instance, has simultaneously produced drawings, prints, even short films, throughout his long career working with steel — but the art world, much like the natural world, is harsh and indifferent. Only the fittest survive.

Yet, as contemporary art has been redefined again and again by new and alternative mediums, certain artists have found not only do they survive by working out new ideas they positively thrive. A small retrospective on Cy Twombly currently running at the Art Institute of Chicago displays his unerring opportunity to challenge himself with materials, tweaking the canvas here and there with something modest or minor but creating an aesthetic narrative to trace.

An even more — heroic is the only term I can summon — example of the artist thinking ahead lies at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, where the incandescent and intoxicating Olafur Eliasson traveling retrospective has taken up room (until September 13). Originally conceived and exhibited by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the show Take Your Time opened in September, 2007. It moved onto MoMA in New York, then the Dallas Museum of Art earlier this year, before making its lone Midwestern stop. Like Gerhard Richter’s 2002 MoMA retrospective and Matthew Barney’s 2003 Cremaster Guggenheim extravaganza, this show has been hailed as a landmark exhibition; and like Richter, though to a greater degree, Eliasson comes of his own accord. His work is of a piece — or of pieces, because for each museum stop the exhibition has been contoured to the specific place. Adding and exchanging pieces is not uncommon for art shows that travel; but Eliasson has contributed all new works at each step. It makes for something unique, the way that the Grateful Dead never performed the same set in concert twice. Eliasson’s show is a live retrospective.

To revisit the exhibition in Chicago after viewing it in San Francisco makes it all the clearer that Eliasson is a major artist, but one who will forever work in the shadow of, say, Richter by virtue of his style of art. Richter moves between painting and photography, abstraction and the figurative, large and tiny images: as a painter through and through, his work is visual, and however much of a conceptualist he appears to be at times a picture is a result of observing for both the artist and the viewer. He regularly produces handsomely printed books, and though there is no substitute for seeing the real thing in person, Richter is a quizzical artist who uses the book form to offer other ideas. Eliasson’s work must be seen, yes, and in person, truly; but there is more: his art needs the spectator as participant. To read about the delightful 360 ° Room for All Colours (2002), a large cylinder that subtly changes colors as the person stands inside; or One-way colour tunnel, 2007, a hallway lit in blinding light that served as the SFMOMA show’s introduction as well as at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is about as meaningful as describing the Mona Lisa as a portrait of an Italian lady.

Eliasson — born in Copenhagen, in 1967, to Icelandic parents, and now working out of a studio in Berlin — is the exemplar of the multi-aesthetic, international artist. Anselm Kiefer, Félix Gonzàlez-Torres, Matthew Barney: such artists rummage through their own and their countries’ attics for material and materials to use, not as former artists once did to identify themselves as American Abstract Expressionists and French Surrealists but as free-floating spirits, stamping their own passports. Nothing in Olafur Eliasson’s broad oeuvre says Danish or Icelandic or cold or old: like much of contemporary art, his work stands alone, apart, even, from him, in a way that would be impossible to separate, say, Matisse from his paintings. In a wonderful way, it liberates the artist. The experience of experiencing Take Your Time becomes a matter of discipline and imagination for the individual artgoer.

While the San Francisco show was quite extensive, covering multiple galleries and floors, the Chicago stop is compressed. It gives a different perspective to Eliasson’s gift for turning things inside out. Whereas at SFMOMA one whole room was filled with small-scaled sculptures and maquettes made out of wood and wire on specially created odd-shaped shelves that recalled a Tim Burton movie, in Chicago the entire artwork, Model room, was reduced to one long row running along a wall in which the other three sides displayed several groups of landscape photographs. At SFMOMA, the models were in one of the first rooms one entered, which gave a warm-up to what wonders were to come; in Chicago, the little geodesic domes got scant attention when lined up beside the beautiful, inviting photographs of inner caves and rivers (each done as a series, mounted tightly together). Grouping the two different mediums in the same space may give the viewer a broader sense of Eliasson’s inventiveness, but his work is so compelling, so individually complete, that one artwork per room makes sense. It is a mistake to divide the viewer’s attention, as it would be putting the photographs up in the same room with the blinding neon tubes. (If Eliasson were a pastry chef, he would make one perfect chocolate chip cookie at a time.)

Still, the excitement of Take Your Time at the Museum of Contemporary Art comes in encountering the art. Many of the same installations, such as a kaleidoscopic mirrored corridor (which distorts shapes and colors depending on the direction one takes) and Moss wall (a hanging of living Icelandic moss that continually changes shape and texture), seem fresh when approached from a new angle. Sadly, the most extreme piece, your mobile expectations: BMW (arttattler.com/designeliasson.html), in which the artist and his assistants stripped a BMW to its frame, coated it with water and installed it in a chilly room in which the water froze into spectacular shapes, thicknesses and icicles, did not reappear from SFMOMA. Still, no matter. Even when Eliasson is experimenting anew on an idea, such as his waterfalls or lighting projects, they are new enough to be different. The retrospective might remind one of The Beatles’ so-called White Album, which was recorded as a means to reintroduce the band. Eliasson keeps reappraising himself and his views of what constitutes art.

In working subversively, continually surprising the viewer from gallery to gallery and even from museum to museum, Eliasson’s style, however more sophisticated in his approach, is a return to the readymade roots sown by Duchamp. Eliasson approaches each room for what it can offer, One work in Chicago’s show, Ventilator, a large fan hanging from a cable that creates its own motion, is pure spontaneity: each viewer is witness to a different swirling angling, every moment. Some people will poke their heads in the room and think nothing of it; others of us may stand there for some time, taking in the quiet atmosphere and conjuring allusions to dancing or skating or fish swimming. There is no summons to explanation, in the fancy fashion of the Matthew Barney School of Over-the-Top; a urinal, a bicycle wheel, a fan: it is all art, all easy, all deceptive, all-of-a-piece. He brings us back down to earth, where he finds both his inspiration and his materials.

Olafur Eliasson, Space reversal, 2007, Mirror foil, aluminum, wood, steel, and drywall, Photo: Ian Reeves, Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, © 2008 Olafur Eliasson.

Olafur Eliasson, 360° room for all colours, 2002. Installation view at Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris; Private collection, courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson.

Olafur Eliasson, 360º room for all colours, 2002. Installation view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of Take your time: Olafur Eliasson; photo: Ian Reeves, courtesy SFMOMA; © 2009 Olafur Eliasson.