MIT Professor of Art History Caroline Jones’ article, “Event Horizon: Olafur Eliasson’s Raumexperimente,” appears in Olafur Eliasson: Contact, the catalogue for Eliasson’s recent exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which was on view until February 23, 2015. Below is an excerpt from Jones’ essay, in which she describes the artist’s Berlin studio, his Institute for Spatial Experiments, as well as the works in this current exhibition.
Infinity Conductors (excerpted from “Event Horizon: Olafur Eliasson’s Raumexperimente,” by Caroline A. Jones)
Eliasson has built up his Berlin studio as a kind of sensory/ mediation / technology laboratory, where he is the art’s first experimental subject. This kind of research was further instantiated in his five-year teaching model, the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments, 2009–2014) directed for the Berlin University of the Arts. Designed to probe the horizon between perception and the “self,” it was a research program based on the post-structuralist idea that the self is always in active formation and is sometimes amenable to conscious transformation through what Foucault called pratiques de soi. In Eliasson’s multi-story Pfefferberg facility (a former brewery), glass and metal shops explore the technologies of lighting and the physics of mono-frequency light, while architects and engineers test the parameters of surface and load, and discourse workers manage the flow of data and philosophy (channeled into many publications, such as this one). Various collaborators show up to contribute to filming, movement at the edge of dance, or hard-core engineering. The feeding of everyone at the communal lunch table is a materialization of Eliasson’s commitment to the yeasty interaction between art, science, and fabrication, and a community of makers and thinkers; it is a performative instantiation of the “micro-cosmos of ideas and actions and their networked relations to the world.”1 With the research of his studio propelled into provocations and art-as- experience, Eliasson brings us figuratively and literally “to the table.”
On offer are the distilled products that we call art, but of course there is no “product” other than our own processing of the situations that Eliasson has arranged for us to enter. Referring back to Gibson, an Eliasson installation offers “processes, changes, and sequences” in dynamic surrounds that challenge our affordances and expectations. What does he promise for the Fondation Louis Vuitton? The Frank Gehry signature architecture seems to exhibit no Euclidean or Platonic geometries. Eliasson responds with simple circles and triangles, forming curved walls that define two large galleries bound together with smaller connecting spaces that have been purpose built for transitions. Various ingredients will include mono-frequency lights, large orbs made of glass, walls wrapped in black sandpaper and fitted with mirrors. (“Should you bounce your arm there, it actually examines the boundary of your skin.”) Each of these elements responds to prior studio experiments but also plays a role in extending Eliasson’s own practice into a risky perimeter, near his own horizons. The mariner metaphor with which I opened is suggestive— his plans for the visitor put the artist “at the helm,” but might reveal him to be “out on a limb,” or even perhaps “walking the plank.” His fate is in our hands. The glass orbs, set into the wall like jewels (an anxiety-provoking simile in this enterprise funded by the Fondation Louis Vuitton), are meant to function like floating planets that also produce upside-down versions of our own world (recalling the popular medieval print tradition, active well into the nineteenth century, of le monde renversé).
Thus the blandishments of follies and bling are put under the proverbial microscope, enlarged to looming significance and thereby (in a trick familiar from Surrealism) forcing us toward deeper truths. Their simple geometries of refraction and inversion mark out the liminal cultural space of carnival and the revolutionary reversal of cultural roles that the “world reversed” always interrogated. As one primitive nineteenth-century woodcut on the subject indicates (there are thousands in this popular genre), the mixes and exchanges that the “topsy-turvy world” sets in motion transform their subjects—in this case the African and her master who produce, as offspring, the bifurcated and miscegenated subjects who physically constitute the new world.
The mingled lessons of maps and new worlds, reversals and black holes, add up to a suggestion of cosmological import: our conceptual imperative to evolve and build a solution from our own monde renversé, making a culture of self-transformation that might avoid the total instrumentalization of the planet and annihilation of “the world as we know it.” Typical of Eliasson’s art and how it works, these most austere ingredients— black walls, white light, glass, piercing monochrome light frequencies, shadows—combine to become the mysteriously simple engines that generate cultural meditations of the most extensive kind. Planetary horizons, the universe with its black holes and strange attractors, the “unbelievably cold white light of the sun seen from outer space” are all appropriate associations to have, upon entering a room with 3,000 Kelvin light emanating from a fluorescing gas fixture.2 “I hope it will work,” says the artist, but he has a fairly good idea that much of it will—the space of darkness with cool illumination from one or many sources, setting up multiple light sources and horizons that will leave you, the viewer, with “nothing else to do” but “act upon your shadow,” using it “to recompose your body” in spaces of disorientation and destabilization. “I’m thinking of letting it rotate,” Eliasson says of the light, “to convey a huge amount of distance, and to give three- dimensionality to the shadows.” Of these small gestures, worlds are conjured, and relations to our planet are productively reimagined.
Caroline Jones is Professor of Art History in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art Program, MIT.
Olafur Eliasson : Contact
December 17th, 2014 to February 23rd, 2015
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Olafur Eliasson: Contact, designed by Irma Boom, with contributions by Peter Coles, Caroline Jones, Bruno Latour, Cia Rinne, Richard Sennett, and a conversation between the artist, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Laurence Bossé. Published by Flammarion, in French and English editions. 200 pages.
1. Part of Suzanne Pagé’s brief to this author regarding Eliasson’s studio operation, email June 20, 2014. See also Jones, “The Server/ User Mode: The Art of Olafur Eliasson,” Artforum International, Vol. 46, No. 2, October 2007.
2. Kelvin numbers describe the color temperature of light, expressed as heat because this color is determined in relation to a theoretical object called a “black body radiator.” As the heat of the hypothetical radiator increases, its visible color changes like that of a flame, moving from black to red, then yellow, white, and all the way to blue. Confusingly, these “temperatures” are merely metaphorical; fluorescent lights can be high Kelvin but will remain cool to the touch.Low Kelvin numbers indicate reddish or “warm” lighting, higher Kelvin bluer or “cool” lighting.
“The Madness of Men or the World Upside-Down,” detail of a plate from Le Recueil d’imagerie populaire des Frères Deckherr à Montbéliard, (1820–1838). Prints and Photographs Department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.