Light Show

It's OK for art to be about the viewer.

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Olafur Eliasson likes light. He also likes color. He likes to combine light and color and then sometimes he likes darkness, the absence of light. The first room I walked into at his major MoMA/P.S.1 exhibit has a spinning prism in the middle. It throws colored strips of light onto the white walls, and when people walk around the room they too become colored. They also create black shadows on the walls. It turns out that people like to see themselves in different colors and that they also like to see their own shadows. They delight in it, really. I guess we’ve always known that. But Eliasson confirms the fact. People run around the room giggling and they take pictures constantly with phones, with digital cameras. Down the hall, an oval room changes color while, again, all the museum-goers snap pictures. Another hallway gives us spotlights reflecting off mirrors. The circle of white light arranges itself in surprising ways. People go into the light, they stand in the light. People photograph one another in the light.

“Room for one colour,” 1997.

A long time ago, I think it was 1968, the great Modernist critic Michael Fried wrote an essay about what was happening in art. To make a long story short, he was angry about theater. He wanted to make sure that art did not succumb to theatrical impulses. He thought that developments in the art of his day—Minimalism in particular—were playing too much toward the audience. In essence, he was making the claim that art is about internal problems and not external ones, between artists and art people, not artists and other people. He didn’t want art to worry about creating an experience for the viewer. He didn’t want art to think about its overall effect, as if it was all about putting on a big show.

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 has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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