Olafur Eliasson: Take Your Time at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
May 1 through September 13, 2009
The latest incarnation of Take Your Time, opened this week at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The traveling exhibition, which features a survey of work by the visual artist Olafur Eliasson, is comprised of a series of space specific corridors and gallery rooms, which serve as complex of sensory locations that interrogate multiple perceptions. The artist’s own interpretation of the works is essential for understanding these investigations; much of the orchestrated material on view is about our individual experiences with art objects. Questioning and repositioning common notions of how we encounter works of visual art is at the core of these constructed events. Eliasson’s process of creation is linear; it starts with researching concepts that engage the human senses. Next, it moves toward creating interactive spaces/experiential models that can achieve connections with people. Successful creations are fine-tuned, shipped out to viewing locations (galleries or public sites), installed, curated and placed on view for the public.
For Eliasson, the moment audiences engage with the work of art, the pieces began their work. He sees the audience as participants who “co-produce reality”; this participation becomes a situation where viewers respond to the work and the work responds for the viewers. It is at this moment that his art begins a series of individual manifestations brought about through our collective personal interactions with the work. In his view then, the work of art is not complete until the last viewer steps from the exhibition. The production model is more of a process than a labor mechanism; these stages are merely the rough channels of the operation. Many experimental movements take place between all of these actions that lead to the viewing public. Projects that die on the studio floor, are scrapped for future reuse, or in the case of this exhibition, they become part of an installation that actually shows failed processes.
'Take Your Time' as a title is perhaps significant for experiencing the works. This statement, which has double interpretations, signals something important for the viewer. To ‘take your time,’ is in one way meant to slow down, be patient, or experience with care. To ‘take’ is to capture or gather. ‘Your’ suggests an individual mode of ownership, and ‘time’ can refer to the momentary. One may want to slow down his/her person to experience this work, or to seize this moment. For me, the title does both, it first commands us to do something we take for granted, which is to slow down, we commonly function in what Baudrillard and others have called hyperreality, a fast-paced, instantly gratifying mode of navigating the world. This notion of slowing down and spending what some may call “quality time” with something, is a novel activity, possibly foreign to some. Art galleries can be great for mediating this exchange. For example, if you plan for observing, you can give yourself multiple slow-down experiences, which can be quite cathartic. ‘Take your time’ then becomes about actually owning the process of slowing down moment. By doing this we have seemingly seized time and slowed it down for ourselves. Eliasson allows viewers to activate this sense of agency by not only empowering, but also challenging the audience to take something.
This interpretation of the exhibition is holistic. Because so many of the rooms and spaces interact to make one large audience environment, it is difficult to center one object or situation. It is important to note that the entire exhibition is interactive, not in the sense that you get to climb on art objects, but through a series of high quality sensory interventions. These seemingly individualized complex sense oriented experiences do something to your physical and optical perceptions. This, in turn, causes a mental experience that often gets confusing and perhaps disorienting. I believe that contextual messages have much to do with the phenomenology of the exhibit. Art museums and galleries always seem to follow a general modus operandi, which affects how we experience displays of art. Take Your Time uses a slightly different program, the artists, installers, and curators create atmospheric situations that intersect, creating a comprehensive interactive space. Seasoned gallery visitors will experience new ways of engaging, viewing, smelling, and feeling visual art. In his opening statements, Eliasson explained he wanted to “dematerialize objecthood”. This suggests that the artist installs interactive environments in order to transcend materials. Audiences are mystified by the affects of these spaces rather than the objects themselves. The exhibition was successful in achieving this because certain moments of viewing allow visitors to question materials and the use of technology. This is important historically because it is something post-minimalists considered after Benjamin’s 1935 seminal work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Eliasson’s work comes not only from his knowledge of perception and sensory experience, but also from his use of materials and special effects that generate universal responses. Take Your Time is fascinating on many levels, namely because it is successful whether you view it in solitude or experience it with a group of people. Neither circumstance diminishes the other, both acts, communal and individual, become equally important. I had the opportunity to experience Moss Wall, 1994, completely alone. Minutes later two men walked into the space and we then began investigating with a flashlight how all of the reindeer moss was held to the gallery wall. This meaningful exchange between strangers struggling to come to terms with the work of art was exceptional. In other rooms, like the one that houses Beauty, 1993, everyone leaned against black walls among dark shadows, only to be outlined by fragments of the spotlight, which exposes a misty image. After minutes of looking, everyone began interacting with the sprays of water by walking through it- wiping faces standing in puddles. I walked behind the screen of water to see expressions on people’s faces as they penetrated the spotlight and the wall of sparkling mist. The collective human experience transgresses all social mores and habits. To experience the exhibition with others is partly liberating - everyone looks in wonder and explores based on their own curiosities. As a community of media correspondents, our critical guards were dismantled, leaving us free to experience the work as one.
Olafur Eliasson is clearly one of the most important visual artists working today; I personally have never had an art experience quite like the one that exists within Take Your Time. Most remarkable is how effortless it is to engage this work. It surpasses all artistic knowledge and becomes obtainable for all levels of intelligence. In short, your age and knowledge of art become irrelevant for the experience.
With that said, Eliasson’s ambivalence toward the institutions of art and his promotion of liberation methodology is problematic. In order to be an activist and anti-art world establishment figure, it requires that you do not willing participate in its oppressive structure. The seemingly obvious contradictions in all of his critiques spin a web of complexity for visual artists, critics, museum patrons, and scholars.
Institutional critique is nothing like activism, because it becomes quite clear that in order to critique something, you must be a part of it or at the very least, understand it deeply. To tell it what it has done wrong you must first realize that you are just as much a part of this particular thing you wish to judge. As visual artists, educators, scholars, critics, and historians we all become the institution and the field of art. When we go to art school, purchase Art Forum, visit commercial galleries, and patron art museums, we are providing credibility to a structure that typically impedes pathways to success. After questioning Eliasson on his obvious ambivalence for the field, I realized his struggle and accepted his desire to reach wider audiences. His reason for selling out, like most artists stems from a desire to expose mass audiences to the inherent power of visual art. In this sense, I understand, but still hold accountable all who wish to sell their ideas, while criticizing the structure that allows them to do so.
W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.
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