BY Christian Haye in Features | 05 MAY 98
Featured in
Issue 40

The Icemen Cometh

Olafur Eliasson

BY Christian Haye in Features | 05 MAY 98

Expect poison from standing water
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth
To create a little flower is the labour of ages

- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

In Copenhagen, you may happen upon an apparition in the otherwise staid environment of an urban park. Perhaps piqued by the sound of running water, you may turn your head and see what appears to be a hemispherical spray rising from the ground. During summer, the structure looks utilitarian: an architectural jungle gym with a sprinkler attached to the top, an accidental fountain without even the simplest element of pomp or grandeur, such as a basin to catch the water. As autumn approaches, little by little, icicles begin to linger from the bars at night. During the long, cold winter, the water is caught by the metal structure, freezes and becomes an igloo; as warmer weather slips in, it begins to melt, until one day the cycle starts anew.

Olafur Eliasson's artworks consist of light, space and water, in its varied states, but provide a contrast to works by a previous generation of artists who also worked with the elements. Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), for instance, could be read as an outrageous act of hubris, an example straight out of Melville or Conrad of man's inherent right to control nature. One could interpret James Turrell's Roden Crater project in Arizona in the same way. Even his rooms with viewing holes cut in the roof are only available for viewing at dusk - nature versus man: the enemy is that which is unknown. Robert Irwin took a different tack. Taking the Californian view of nature as a fundamentally benign force when treated with respect, Irwin regarded the elements as the zenith of a spiritual quest. The artist becomes Ozymandias, but nature still has its way of eroding his lofty ideals.

Eliasson has shed the macho skin of his predecessors and emerged as an artist for the new millennium: a cultural worker, whose gender is irrelevant, engaged in the controlled debate between magic and the material that so obsessed William Blake. In Beauty (1993), a lush rainbow eased itself into its environment. The viewer was aware of the artifice of the illusion, and this was part of the work: Eliasson does not hide his hand, and the viewer is flattered by the simplicity of the science involved. Erosion (1997), similarly, was founded on a concept so elementary that its effects took one by surprise - at last year's Johannesburg Biennale, Eliasson left a tap running outside the exhibition's main venue. The water streamed down the pavement, over a four-lane artery of the city, down side streets and into backyards, inviting itself into the viewer's field of vision with a deft grace that was comforting, cunning and devoid of cynicism.

The first work by Eliasson I fell for was Your strange certainty still kept (1997). The work consisted of basic piping that sprinkled water onto a silver mat, but since the gallery was lit only by a strobe light, all one could see were droplets of water forever frozen in motion. Unlike many installations, the piece appeared surprisingly comfortable with the space in which it was displayed. It never seems as if Eliasson is using scale to glorify the role of the artist at the expense of the viewer: an earlier work, In Your Compound Eye (1996), multiplied the available light in an imitation of a fly's vision; the artist later reworked the piece so that the viewer was able to walk into the sculpture, again allowing full perceptual access.

Being a New Yorker, my relationship with the natural world is an uneasy one. Eliasson, Danish-born, of Icelandic heritage and currently residing in Berlin, is familiar with urban living but conveys no battle between city and nature. A current proposal for a project in Stockholm involves the turfing and closing of a street to create a temporary pedestrian esplanade, a perfect illustration of the harmony he proposes. The neo-natal state to which he returns us is something that perhaps not everyone is ready to deal with. In Paris, for instance, at a recent survey exhibition of Scandinavian artists, Eliasson's plan was to place several hundred pounds of ice into a box whose volume was ten percent less than the ice it was to hold, allowing for a perfect fit as the ice contracted into water in the heat of the gallery. Unfortunately, to assuage someone's fear, the container was built slightly larger than the artist's specifications, denying the viewer a chance to view the melting ice form a convex seal over its container. This is work that brings us to the locus of visceral wonder; it is a place to which many will be dragged kicking and screaming.