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Staging Take your time is a coup for Australia, the only venue outside America where this exhibition, by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, will travel. Organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the exhibition spans fifteen years of Eliasson’s multi-disciplinary practice. It is expansive and expensive—the most costly exhibit to date presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)—but it also delivers.
Eliasson’s immersive environments titillate our senses from the outset. He has chosen a work often used to preface his exhibitions, Room for one colour (1997), to lead us into this show. It is an alert reading in the Australian context, the installation’s intense yellow light and spatial void speaks to our national psyche and landscape tradition. Comprising seven rows of ceiling-mounted mono-frequency yellow bulbs, their piercing glow physically unsettles the viewer. We think of light as being intangible but Eliasson reminds us it is physically felt. The longer you stay in the space, the more the initial prick to the retina softens to the warmth of the hue. It is upon exiting the gallery, however, that one’s expectation is thrown, as the museum’s pristine white cube is turned into a purple haze. It is a hell of an entrée to Eliasson’s work.
Room for one colour is juxtaposed with a playful installation, and in tandem these works pose the synthesis of Eliasson’s practice. Comprised of three tonnes of white LEGO blocks that viewers are invited to sit down and re/construct, this second work, like Eliasson’s yellow room, prepares the audience for their role of engagement. On loan from the Queensland Art Gallery, The cubic structural evolution project (2004) has been included for the Sydney leg of the exhibition and is in keeping with its curatorial premise of evolution, changing with each venue.
Take your time transforms the third floor of the MCA, funnelling visitors through tight tunnels to an area where they are misted with scrims of water—the most unexpected material to find in a museum. It is a constant dance between illusion and reality. Eliasson brings a physical assault on all the senses, throwing perception yet working with accepted systems of knowledge: architecture, perspective, geometry, colour theory, meteorological systems, and phenomenology.
Just as that first transition from yellow ping to purple, there are two tunnels mirrored either side of the third floor galleries that offer a kind of ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ awe. The first One-way colour tunnel (2007) is a prismatic form that creates a kaleidoscopic effect as one moves through, its triangulations refracting light into glorious colour. But looking back after exiting the tunnel one sees only blackness. The second tunnel, Soil quasi bricks (2003), offers another key transition in this survey. Constructed from pungent volcanic soil compressed into hexagonal tiles, it acts as a chute delivering audiences to a darkened room filled with a misting apparatus and spotlight capturing the refractions of light in a rainbow. Titled Beauty (1993) this atmospheric installation has been touted as the summation of the exhibition and, when considered in combination with 360° room for all colours (2002), a light-filled drum encountered when exiting from Beauty, one is certainly moved by the experience. It again plays off natural and constructed phenomenology—a rainbow created by mist and one by a sophisticated computer spectrum of colours.
This sensory tension between varying surfaces: arctic moss to stainless steel, soil to water, density to ethereal mist, is textured and rich. It is deeply connected to a long tradition of dematerialising the art object through natural phenomenon. This is best described in a suite of photographs, The horizon series (2002), that document fields of Nordic moss and volcanic soil in a grid formation and the related installation Moss Wall (1994) in the adjacent gallery. Here pale yellow moss stretches the length of the long gallery, ceiling to floor, its subtle smell filling the space. It represents both a natural and constructed environment.
Eliasson’s photographs are an important part of this exhibition and, indeed, of his practice and Icelandic heritage. They are new editions for the Sydney exhibition and offer a significant entrée for local audiences, earthing his practice back to that landscape tradition.
While there are many spectacular works across Take your time, it is their underlying simplicity that captures attention. Such as the quieter piece, Remagine (2002), where seven theatre lights project overlapping trapezoid and rectilinear forms in varying shades of white, creating illusions of depth. Its deceivingly simple sequence of form and volume disrupts optical cognition and yet its repetition and familiarity seduce rather than unsettle.
‘Olafur Eliasson’ is big production, big budget and big sensation. However, it is not afflicted with big ego. This exhibition gracefully takes your hand and explores with you. While the installation is deliberately without wall text, the MCA has produced a discreet brochure for visitors to take as they wander through the galleries, unlocking the mysteries of Eliasson’s work. Again, it is a coup to present this exhibition in Australia and the MCA’s meticulous presentation of these art works completes Eliasson’s expression.