Friday, July 29, 2011

Designer of the Month: Olafur Eliasson

Week 4

Last week, I discussed the ways in which Olafur Eliasson brings nature into museum and gallery spaces with his solar works, this week, I'll explore a similar topic, but focus on his water-inspired pieces.

 Olafur Eliasson, Brooklyn Bridge, from The New York City Waterfalls series, 2008. Photograph by Julienne Schaer. Courtesy of The New York City Waterfalls.

As I mentioned during week 1, my love of Eliasson's work came from the Take Your Time exhibitions at MoMA and PS1 and The New York City Waterfalls installations of 2008. By 2008, Eliasson had been creating waterfall-based works since 1996, with The waterfall series. Rather than the typical mechanized installations that became such an important part of Eliasson's body of work, The waterfall series was a photographic series of 50 separate images of Icelandic waterfalls.[1] Altered using colored photographic filers to emphasis the unique attributes of each waterfall, The waterfall series represents nature at its most unnatural.
Olafur Eliasson, The waterfall series, 1996. Fifty framed chromogenic prints. Collection of Arthur and Carol Goldberg. Courtesy of Olafur Eliasson.

But bringing nature into the space of the gallery or museum - interpreting and thus taming it - has always been an important aspect of Eliasson's work. Of course, this isn't true of just Eliasson's work; artists have been creating works based on or around nature in an effort to better understand it for as long as art has existed.  As Mieke Bal explains in his essay "Light Politics" from the Take Your Time catalogue of Eliasson's relationship with the landscape through his work:
Many of Eliasson's works entertain a contentious relationship with landscape... "Landscape" seems a relevant frame for Eliasson's works - not because they are landscapes (many are not), but because they perform interventions in what we have naturalized as landscape. In this sense, they intervene not just in the natural environment, but also, more importantly, in our conception of it, our position to it. The term landscape indicates a humanized relationship with nature, whether this relationship is one of self-affirmation through dominion or conquest or, on the contrary, a desire to transcend and efface the self in the face of nature. Both attitudes come from a fundamental discontent with the limitations of human existence. It is this dissatisfaction that Eliasson's work questions, and endeavors to remedy by empowering subjects to be more responsive and responsible.[2]
Olafur Eliasson, Reversed waterfall, 1998. Scaffolding, steel, water, foil, wood, hose, and pump. Installation view at PS1, 2008. Courtesy of MoMA.

While The waterfall series was Eliasson's first use of the waterfall as a subject in his work, it would be far from his last. Elisson's first attempt at creating an artificial waterfall came with his Waterfall of 1998, a smaller-scale version of what would eventually be The New York City Waterfalls. Standing a little over 29 feet high (compared to the 90-120 feet of the 2008 versions), with water rushing loudly down a tower of scaffolding, which was then pumped back to the top, Waterfall evoked both the sight and sound of a natural waterfall in an unnatural setting.[3] Another waterfall work from the same year, Reversed waterfall, presented this same subject with an added bit of complexity. As Apsara DiQuinzio describes it, "The artist erects a stepped, metal scaffolding indoors or in a natural setting. Fonts on each of the four levels direct water up the frame and into a square basin on the next story, reversing its gravitational flow. A rudimentary piping system recirculates the water to the base of the structure."[4] Although these are the most obvious of the works that inspired The New York City Waterfalls, many other of Eliasson's installations utilize water - in the form of mist, such as with Beauty (1993, one of my favorite of Eliasson's works); both solid, as with 2006's Your waste of time, and a combination of homogeneous and melting, as with Ice pavilion (1998); or wave patters, as with the 2005 Notion motion. By the time The New York City Waterfalls were created, water in all its forms and uses were topics in which Eliasson was already well versed.

[1] Apsara DiQuinzio, "Projects 1991-2001: The waterfall series," from Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 64. 

[2] Mieke Bal, "Light Politics," from Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 158-9.

[3] Apsara DiQuinzio, "Projects 1991-2001: Waterfall," from Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 91.

[4] Ibid., 92.

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