Olafur Eliasson: Your ocular relief
On ViewTanya Bonakdar Gallery
Your Ocular Relief
March 9 – April 24, 2021
It has been two-and-a-half years since Olafur Eliasson’s last solo show in New York, but he has hardly been idle. Few artists are more industrious, and few artists’ practices are as varied as this Icelandic-Danish techno-imaginairan whose expansive studio is in Berlin but whose subject is the world and our place within it. I didn’t see the installation that burst him on the international scene, The Weather Project in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London in 2003-4, but I spent a great deal of time in his show at MoMA and PS1 titled Take Your Time in the summer of 2008, with the Waterfalls along the East River later that year, and then in the retrospective at Tate Modern in 2019 titled In Real Life. The MoMA/PS1 installations were thrilling in their ambition and novel to New York audiences, who took to them in droves, participating in the kind of communal flow experience that is the artist’s goal. The clever and engaged spectacles of the MoMA shows were less in evidence at Tate Modern 12 years later—a shift in Eliasson’s practice had become detectable. It was a fine survey of the artist’s work, and the highlight was the wondrous Din blinde passager (2010), the closest installation to the spectacle-based works, but one that signaled other concerns. One entered the fog with a group, but you quickly lost your bearings and were no longer aware of your companions. The sublime Turnerian mist of pure humid color both amazed and occluded, a stand-in, perhaps, for the condition humanity finds itself in on a pained planet. But Eliasson’s denouement occurred outside of the exhibition proper: both in the cafeteria where his cooking team from the studio introduced environmentally conscious dining, and, most brilliantly, immediately after you exited the show, in The Expanded Studio (2019), an interactive simulacrum of the workshop in Berlin. This is where the crowds lingered. This is where the environmental and social activism of the artist’s studio was on full display in a long wall covered with inspirational material, in monitors broadcasting the studio’s films and projects, in tables with materials to create designs with your children. The art you had just seen was the engine for the true passion. The material accepted as art makes possible the advocacy and science and environmentally conscious design. No solitary and obsessive and hermetic Earth artist like James Turrell or Michael Heizer, Eliasson works with the earth to promote planetary change. The worthiness and earnestness of this endeavor, and the public interest in it, were evident.
The present show of seven works represents a focusing of energy and a break from the pressure of producing such vast displays, offering “ocular relief,” a kind of COVID-deflecting eye candy for our society under pressure. In this it largely delivers without diminution of its complicated science and evocations of the artist’s career-long obsessions. Two rings of the artist’s familiar glass chromospheres (2021), one silvered glass wall sculpture (Mirror my calmness Buddha in me, 2021), and the gorgeous Colour Experiment no. 106 (2020), a blooming and stained use of acrylic on a 50-inches-in-diameter tondo that continues his eponymous and now 12-year old series of meditations on hues, are the type of work that support the studio’s broader aims and provide continuity with earlier designs. There is an entrancing sculpture titled Model for decelerated light (2021), a new take on an orrery, or moving model of the solar system. A bowling-ball-sized glass sphere sits on a stainless-steel tripod like an armillary orb and is equatorially ringed by a bronze hoop with an inward shining LED. A moveable metal arm below holds a golf-ball-sized blue glass sphere riddled with air bubbles and an intense LED light that shines through this rotational blue moon then through the glass sphere, producing a magnified and speckled image of this azure satellite onto the wall beyond. Gallery staff will activate the rotating arm for you, but you will wish the room was darker to better see this projection. Move around the work to view the changing color effects in the large orb. Another room on the second floor holds Edgy but perfect kinship sphere (2020), a signature and playful Eliasson studio piece based in geometric and colored glass science and featuring a large polyhedron chandelier illuminated from within that casts colored shapes on every surface, at times blended with your own shadow.
The stunner of the show is in a large and darkened ground floor room. Your ocular relief (2021) presents the viewer waiting for their eyes to adjust with a 33-foot-long concave curving screen that is nearly 9 feet high; it envelopes you like one of Monet’s crescent canvas Nymphéas at the Orangerie. But your eyes will not soon adjust, because the light is so deftly modulated that you will feel you are either in outer space or the depths of the sea. Four elevated enclosures behind the screen project five beams of light through a variety of intricate and rotating lenses to splash against the rear of the scrim. The motors collectively emit a steady hum familiar from any number of sci-fi films set in spacecrafts or planetary bases. The infinite combination of resulting motive light effects is hypnotic, encouraging absorbed contemplation (although the absence of benches and crowds coming to see Eliasson’s work obviate against sustained reverie). In this inky artistic aphotic zone, the illuminations appear as exotic, deep sea creatures, or slowly shifting Hubble telescope images, or x-rays, or lens flares from a Paul Thomas Anderson film—real and imagined worlds we experience only through lenses. The Kubrickian slow time of Your ocular relief and its kaleidoscopic aesthetics present beauty without sentiment but encourage self-consideration. The artist has said that in response to a year of pandemic, he would like to offer visitors “a moment to exhale … Before you have hope, you have to have relief.” Take your time.