Olafur Eliasson, Graz, Austria
The sound of Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfall (1998) greeted visitors to his installation in Graz. The roar of water turned into a splashing in the first, initially pitch-black room, appropriately titled Your Strange Certainty Kept (1996). Despite the noise, only a motionless curtain of droplets was visible, frozen into immobility by strobe-lighting - the strange certainty that we are confronting falling water kept literally hanging in the air.
Is there anything more behind these works than language-games and capricious superficiality? Eliasson’s work is often written about through the veil of biographical interpretation (although Danish, he is of Icelandic ancestry), and from there it’s usually only a small leap into discussions of nature. It is an approach which helps to understand this show, as long as one thing is made clear: ‘Iceland’ and ‘Nature’ are interchangeable concepts, supple points of departure for the artist, not destinations in themselves.Room for One Colour (1998), for example, may simply be a room bathed in yellow light, but it conjures images of murky, Nordic faces, immersed in the melancholy light of the midsummer night fjords, but you get the feeling it’s done a little tongue in cheek. Moss-Wall (1994) is another successful ‘zone’ in Eliasson’s Minimalist theme-park. Like the waterfall, it lives up to its name: it’s a wall covered entirely in Icelandic moss. Although it flirts with the senses (the room is filled with the aroma of the far North), nature is also simultaneously transformed into a raw material, reduced to a sign. Eliasson condenses nature into the notions we use to describe it, and then reinterprets them. Your Windless Arrangement (1997), introduces wind into the gallery: an installation of 16 ventilators creates a stream of air that is sucked in from an open window and then blown toward the viewers in the gallery.
The construction of nature as a concept becomes a display, where Romantic effusion collides with sober science. An almost dreamy arbor of woven steel bands, which lacks only a Virginia Creeper to complete the idyll, reveals itself to be the physical realisation of the configuration of a five-fold crystal (Five Fold Tunnel, 2000). The same crystals reappear in cardboard (Models, 2000), while a light-sculpture follows the form of a doughnut (Doughnut Projection, 2000). References don’t always have to be picked from the nature-trail. In this theme-park for advanced participants, re-staged spectacles of nature are cultivated on the same level as the abstracted catering concept of doughnuts for Disneyland visitors. Eliasson does not seek to uncover the construction of reality; he toys with it instead, describing his own work as ‘devices for the experience of reality’.
The title of the exhibition ‘Surroundings Surrounded’, is a poignant description of Eliasson’s methods - nature is commonly understood as ‘surroundings’ in which, at most, you can try to locate yourself. The show offers not a return to, but a moving towards nature. The presentation in the rooms of the Graz museum is mapped out as a one-way parcours - visitors move along a route with no return and are exposed to a succession of stages. At the end of the tour, you are released through a back door, and end up where it all began, at the waterfall in the courtyard. The difference is that this time you are standing behind it, where the words ‘everything is construction’ become distilled into an almost didactic showpiece: the veil of water is visible only through scaffolding, past the pipe and pump. At the show’s denouement it becomes clear: simulation is no substitute for reality, the construction is the thing itself. The fascination created by the artificial apparatus is the most natural thing of all: water falls.