It's OK for art to be about the viewer.
|"Room for one colour," 1997.
Well, Fried lost. Walking around an Eliasson show is like walking on Michael Fried's grave (he's not actually dead). Come to think of it, many of Eliasson's light pieces are created with theater spotlights. It is all about the viewer. It is all about the relationship between the work and the viewer, the way that the viewer completes the work by participating in the thing. Fried is so completely dead (he is, though, actually, physically alive) that Eliasson and his defenders don't even bother engaging him these days. The idea that a work of art should incorporate the viewer is taken to be obvious.
Eliasson also likes to engage the viewer by means of mirrors. You suddenly see yourself. You can watch yourself in the room, being part of the work. At P.S.1, there's a giant spinning egg-shaped mirror suspended above the main room on the third floor. People go into the room and lay down on the floor, watching themselves in the motion of the disk. One of the best pieces at MoMA is a suspended and slowly turning two-dimensional square. A light projects its shadow against the far wall. As the square turns, you watch the shadow transform. But on the other side of the square is a mirror. The mirror side of the square throws the light back into the faces of the viewer and, eventually, shows you an image of yourself, watching.
It is good work. There is something particularly beautiful about the raindrop room. It's just a dark room with a hose on the ceiling that lets water drop into a tray. A strobe light breaks up the visual field. Because of the strobe, you can't see the flow, you can't see the falling. You just see the individual drops, frozen as single rain thingies, or whatever. Beautiful.
I guess I'm glad that Michael Fried lost. In Fried's vision of things we'd all be staring at Frank Stella canvases from the late '60s for the rest of eternity. That would wear on the nerves. I'm glad that art got crazy and that we're all playing around with the ways that viewing an art show can be like viewing any other sort of show. Eliasson's works manage to be delightful and intelligent at the same time. You can enjoy the pretty lights or you can reflect on the nature of the apperceptive subject. Some of us even do both.
But we must stop, please, the silly talk about how viewing works by Eliasson will somehow contribute to our liberation from consumer culture, or even offer a substantial alternative. Madeleine Grynsztejn, for instance, writes in the catalogue, "Enter the work of Eliasson, which at its core makes a case for the proactive subject, for the individual's return to a heightened sense of him- or herself in the act of perceiving and acting, and by extension for the conscious ownership of all manner of processes of cognition that tend to be standardized, automated, and otherwise impoverished by a mediating world." This is joke writing. Eliasson is not going to give us "conscious ownership of all manner of processes of cognition" and it would be terrifying if he did. Nobody wants that much ownership. The people viewing Eliasson's exhibits have every manner of experience with the lovely lights. Those who are so inclined may think a little bit about phenomenology. Others take nice pictures of their friends. The genius of Eliasson is the genius of a craftsman and tinkerer who does wonderful things with light and color and reflection. Let it be just that. • 29 April 2008
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. Idle Chatter appears here weekly. Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by Matthew Septimus, courtesty of MoMA and P.S.1. ©2008 Olafur Eliasson