Thursday, October 04, 2007


Less than two centuries ago, my great-great grandfather, John Franklin, signed his wedding certificate with an X. Living in what was then – and still is today – one of the wealthiest nations on earth, this British fish monger had never learned to read. Today, I produce texts for a living. I thought of my ancestor, and of the meaning(s) of history & of context, often as I looked at the works of Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic installation artist who is the subject of a one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will run until February 24 of next year. Eliasson uses diverse techniques, ranging from photography to sculpture to light & mirrors to moss to, in one stunning instance a viewer might miss because it’s two floors from the main portion of the exhibition, a BMW racing car encased in two tons of ice, stored in a room kept at roughly 14° Fahrenheit (the day I was there it hovered between 12 & 13). What would an illiterate fishmonger make of that?

Or of the pieces employing light, such as Room for one colour, an eerie yellow that drains everything of color so that what you see, the instant you step out of the elevator, is a world in which there exists only shades of this yellow or its absence, the color black. This is created entirely through the use of monochromatic bulbs. It is simultaneously fascinating & nauseating, more or less literally. The sudden reduction of color makes you hyperconscious of just how much information is being redacted, just how much information you take in just through the presence of color alone in the simplest of scenes – people getting on or off an elevator in a museum. You are, you realize, fully literate in color. Or at least I am, not being color blind. I wonder what this same room would look like to one of my sons who often cannot discern orange from green, nor green from blue.

From my perspective, the most interesting of the 21 works was 360°room for all colours, a very nearly circular space – there is an entranceway that takes out perhaps 10 percent of the experience – that consists entirely of light being projected across this panorama. At times, the entire circle is one color – most often white, although at least once I noticed a cherry red. More often, swatches of the spectra occupy different portions of the circle, either moving gradually around the panorama or shifting very subtly into whatever will come next. While I was there, relatively few people were observing the entire panorama, say from its center or the door way. Most, myself included, positioned themselves maybe two inches from one spot, so that the light would entirely fill their field of vision. This is an intense experience, and may not be suited for everyone. What you notice, close up, are three things, only one of which is the light itself. You also notice physical items that are part of your own viewing apparatus, floaters in the middle of the eyeball. At 61, I have more than a few of these translucent strings, although in daily life I hardly ever notice them. Far less so these days than I did, say, 15 years ago when I had cataracts in both eyes that required surgery. Without the impinging shadows of the cataracts that were literally robbing me of my sight & thereby rendering me hyperaware of it, these floaters are no big deal & I never think about them, even though they’re there all the time, tiny deposits of hardened protein in the middle of my eyeballs.

The third element is something I take to be neurological more than physical, and even here at the edge of light I don’t notice it consistently, a series of what I can only characterize as webbing or a grid, so that a solid field of color is in fact richly organized & not a bare block. When I was much younger & given to playing with psychedelics, I would notice this as well – against a field of white it might tinge red or blue ever so slightly, pulsing or slowly spinning, lovely actually to look at – it was definitely part of the wow factor of acid hallucinations, but now I see it not at all as hallucinatory but rather as part of my omnipresent field of vision, normally just below the level of consciousness. Or of recognition. Stripped away of all else, it comes to the fore.

Other Eliasson effects often are based on similar instances of making us see that which is normally elusive, or maybe not even available. There are two pieces, one a black square cut out in a wall, the other an installation at window’s edge up a tiny flight of stairs, where people are allowed up two at a time, in which the presence of mirrored surfaces in all four directions lead you to be staring down at multiple instances the very top of your head or (on the little platform) at the bottom of your feet. Women who approach the window in skirts would be advised to wear panties.

Eliasson is at once beyond subtlety and a master practitioner thereof. Some of the photo series – every waterfall on a major glacier in Iceland, for example, is as droll as Ed Ruscha’s photos of buildings on the streets of LA – and the iced racing car, Your mobile expectations, is a case in point. The car has had to have its body re-engineered to take the weight & cold of the ice, but it is in some sense functional – the lights are on, tho how they manage this eluded me. The ice, tho, is not a block, but rather an egg-shaped web of ice, which is gradually softening, little spikes of ice gradually softening its surface. Viewers are given felt blankets to wrap around them and let into the sealed chamber in groups of about a dozen to twenty people. You can see everyone waiting, nobody wanting to be the first to flee but the instant the first person knocks to be let out the far door, roughly half the crowd rush through, then again in a couple of more groups. I circled the car three times or so, not really picking up details like the grillwork or tires until my last time around. I was surprised to discover that I was the last one out the door of my group.

Eliasson is quoted as saying that his work is about experience rather than objects, which walking through the museum bears out in spaces, save for the one room that consists of models built by Eliasson and his assistants that reveal them to be exploring the potential in geometric variations with considerable care & precision. This is not that far from, say, the poetics of Robert Grenier, particularly the more recent scrawl and drawn pieces where the whole trick of the work is simply to be able to decipher it, so that you feel the language going off in your head. Both Eliasson and Grenier also share the fact of being fun, which invariably must make some people suspicious. Can this be art? Eliasson, like Grenier, is an argument for the affirmative.


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