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Issue 26

Olafur Eliasson

BY Christiane Schneider in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

Intertwined amorphous shapes, apparently composed of supernatural light, move slowly around the room. This 'vision' is not a parapsychological phenomenon, nor is it conceived in a digital visual space - and it can't be attributed to the influence of drugs... The Cologne-based Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson lays bare the production process of this 'mystic' revelation, the constant humming of a 1000-watt floodlight dispersing any transcendental speculations. The energy comes, unconcealed, from the wall-socket. The rays of light emitted from the floodlight are beamed into a concave glass plate leaning in the opposite corner, and from there diverted onto a revolving, slightly dented, round mirror, which, driven by a home-made electric motor, rotates on an ordinary tripod. The broken light is cast onto the reverse side of a plastic hoop stretched with a screen and projected into the eye of the viewer standing before it - the final point in this satellite broadcast of light.

The system, based on familiar laws of physics, is immediately obvious in its logic of cause and effect. Yet this physical demystification does not diminish the visual sensations of the final result. On the contrary, the piece retains the viewer's undisturbed attention, since the need for explanation, as well as a burgeoning fascination with the technology imagined behind it, are already anticipated. In this installation, poetically entitled A Description of a Reflection, or a Pleasant Exercise Regarding its Qualities (1995), Eliasson stages vision as a method of cognition that includes the rational readability of function as well as its emotional disposition. The ray of light measures the gallery space like a linear vector, generating a disordered, indefinable shape which evokes both 'natural' and hallucinatory phenomena through the play of reflections on the ordered geometric shapes. Proportions are accentuated and dispersed: the diameter of the round screen exceeds the height of the ceiling so that as it turns into the space on its diagonal axis, the body of light appears to be floating freely rather than projected on a screen.

With mundane, Arte Povera-type materials and little technical extravagance, Eliasson precludes any sculptural concreteness in the individual components of his installation, which are strictly functional. In this, he continues one characteristic of 60s production, but substitutes its demand for objectivity and factuality by making his equipment himself and by leaving room for the imagination. The simplicity of the materials expands the spectrum of implications, dispersing untenable dualities (nature/artifice, rational/mystic) into more complex relationships. Eliasson's exploration of light as a fundamental premise of energy, ranges from the abstract (the perception of nature) to the concrete (the electricity supply). His differention of definitions of 'nature' introduces an opportunity to approach a traditional, somewhat fragile theme from beyond the parameters of current, more conventional, schemata. These are essentially limited to two extreme positions: to see 'nature' as either a moral value in itself - often used as a synonym for protecting the environment (an attitude which circulates with crude irrationality, particularly in Germany) - or, in respect to cyberspace, to declare it as a of declining significance. Even when he passes into the perilous zone of the Sublime, Eliasson does idealise - he has invented a deconstructive Romanticism which does not forget that nature, too, is a symbol.