A Moment Missed

Review of Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, March 2001

Boston, MA — What I first missed of Olafur Eliasson’s turned out to be most important. Between running a few errands and heading for work, I stepped away from Boylston Street’s traffic and into the ICA.

I peered into the lower level space to my left. A grid of aerial photographs filled one wall, where each image was a variation of the same hunk of geography. With no urge to look closer, I headed right.

I passed a large circular mirror with a piston pumping below, boxed in glass. That’s pretty sexual, I thought. Sex and self-image, I moved on.

I entered a large room with a blue flame at one end. I did not notice anything else in the space, only that the lights were out, so I approached the Bunsen burner. Nearer, it was quite warm. The object on the wall was not much different than what you find on a stove-top, but more robust. It is a bit odd to see a flame mounted to a wall, to see the connection between stucco and gas lines, heat and art. It feels strange and dangerous. Flames produce a beauty and awe that cannot easily be ignored. But, a flame can do this without 250 square feet of dedicated gallery space …

Exiting this room brought me back to the mirror. I felt obligated to give it a second look; there must be something that I am missing. I quickly walked close to the mirror’s edge. It was thick, mounted substantially, and connected to the pneumatic piston. Maybe it turns, I thought. I was anxious to see if this show would redeem itself upstairs, but I watched the edge closely for a second, to see if it moved.

Frustrated, I began up the stairs. Halfway, on the first landing, the ICA seemed to be under serious renovation. A wood structure rushed down from the space above. I hesitated and then paused to look. Columns of raw cut lumber flanked me on either side. Square wood stock butt against the ICA’s white walls and varnished handrails. Syncopated connections between the museum and this structure disrupted the geometry of both. Before I continued upward, I had to take a moment to think about where I was headed.

I noticed that Eliasson slowed the transition to the gallery above by adding a few extra steps. The stairs now reached surreally close to the ceiling. Before I even entered this gallery, Eliasson made me very attentive to its space.

I continued up the stairs. As I moved from the ICA’s steps to the sculpted look-a-likes, I found myself intensely aware of their subtle difference. With a heightened appreciation of my surroundings, and for the texture of the rather ordinary experience of climbing stairs, my critical eye blinked, then softly rest shut. In awe, I floated into Eliasson’s altered space. Displaced by the wood below, a pool of water surrounded me and enveloped my awareness. Eliasson raised the floor in a dark room to put the skin of a puddle at eye level. Here he displayed the ordinary and yet amazing moment when water meets air. With a quiet mind, I passed through the cool and perfect surface of still water.

In this strange room, Eliasson built a board-walk like platform to view this shallow well. Though not claustrophobic, the area was small compared to the water around it. The deck almost became a podium in this gallery, putting the experience on display.

From this view, a ripple on the surface of the water becomes the focus. The rhythm is familiar and the movement ethereal. But unlike the waves that follow a skipping stone, the circles on this water are light. A neon fixture mounted to the ceiling fades through a series of concentric rings which softly reflect in the dark, black water a few feet below. Watching this reminds me of the strange way water behaves. In waves, energy moves forward while the water stays behind, only rising and falling in passive response.

I spent a short while here, letting my mind wander before experiencing the next few pieces by Eliasson. Each of these pieces also focused on the play between light, perspective, and our awareness of space. Circular forms echoed throughout his work, reflecting the boundless material that he sculpts. Unlike my approach downstairs, I accepted and explored this art with a curious, not critical, posture. I took the time to view this work from within, as an experience; and I stepped back to marvel at how such strange phenomena could sit bound by ceiling, floor, and wall.

Reluctantly, after I entered the white hole in the black well, I returned down the stairs. Moving much more slowly now, I looked across the room to appreciate the mirror for what it was. As I perused the details of the gallery in reverse, I gasped, my breath stolen by the motion of the mirror. Expanding like the chest of a sleeping child, the mirror absorbed all the details of the room (slowly, like I had upstairs), and then exhaled. As the mirror flexed, the edge between walls, rooms, and perceptions dripped toward the mirrors center. How cold I have missed this twice? Seeing it now, I was ready to return to the bustle outside. On my way to the door, I laughed at myself for ignoring the title of this mirrored piece, “Concave, Convex.” It became clear how the repetitive pneumatics reflected my habits of thought – moving, but not perceiving.

Outside again on Boylston Street, I walked amidst the traffic without resistance. I noticed how two parts of the concrete street were joined by a steel seam with a gap. In this space, the color from expressway traffic below mixed furiously, commuting life to and from this city.

Later, I thought about the photographs I never approached. I imagined the gradual changes that time makes to a landscape. I felt the presence of the quiet, epic force beneath my feet amongst the spinning rocks and heat casually whirling around the sun.

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