In his exhibition “Take Your Time,” Olafur Eliasson seems determined to upend museum art and our habituated responses to it. His work is immersive in the spatial sense. Eliasson creates what he calls “devices for the experience of reality.” However, in the exhibition currently running at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Eliasson’s reality experiences inadvertently reveal the awkwardness of the museum space itself. The MCA version of the exhibition succeeds in creating fascinating sensory experiences, but it is less rich as a temporal experience.
The problem can be traced to 360 Room for All Colours, which is one of the more pleasurable installations in “Take Your Time.” Eliasson updates the panorama, a form that first appeared in the Paris arcades in the early nineteenth century. Originally painted landscapes that rotated to simulate a riding tour, the panoramas were an important proto-cinematic technology. Eliasson strips out the images, leaving only a warm glow of subtly shifting hues—the glow of a television but without the sterile harshness. The instillation gently reorients your senses away from a dependence on vision, the primary sensory mode for apprehending art. You can almost feel the light striking your eyes. The acoustics make it seem like the walls are talking. In fact, the voices are echoes of other people in the space. You can’t help but lean in to hear what’s being said. You also want to touch the foil surface of the artwork, but you don’t because it’s too perfect and a museum guard will yell at you. You exit the space feeling better than when you went in, which is more than one can say for a television show.
But then there’s the rest of the room and the other artworks. The MCA space is cavernous and, because of the internal illumination of 360 Room, very dim. Located nearby is Multiple Grotto, another enveloping space made of up stainless steel that’s supposed to reflect light. Unfortunately, in the shadow of 360 Room Grotto has all the ambiance of a bus stop shelter on a cloudy day. The room’s dimness made me miss Beauty, the earliest work in the exhibition and one of Eliasson’s best known works. It’s an instillation of mist and Fresnel lamps. It captures the ephemeral, insubstantial quality of Eliasson’s art. Alas, the entryway is hidden behind drawn black curtains, making it seem like a dead end in the exhibition. Another couple and I hesitated before the heavy black curtains, and we decided not to risk parting them, assuming that some sort of construction was going on. Indeed, it’s the nature of the MCA space, a converted armory, to feel perpetually under construction.
Other artworks occupy their spaces more comfortably. Ventilator has a room to itself, which at first seems to be another instance of a container that’s just a little too big for its instillation. Here, though, a fan is suspended from a ceiling and swings wildly just a few inches about your head. It’s a witty gesture worthy of Duchamp. Moss Wall is another one-to-a-room instillation, but the light is more even and natural, perfectly illuminating an entire wall covered in Icelandic moss. Sensory surprises await here as well: it smells good. One woman got so close to the moss she seemed to want to disappear into it.
Experiences like these are what Eliasson’s art is all about. Yet, because of the ill-fitting spaces, the exhibition doesn’t flow well enough to feel like one’s sense of time is being altered. “Take Your Time” doesn’t have the magical seamlessness of an exhibition of Vermeer paintings I once attended in the Smithsonian, which I couldn’t go through slowly enough. There’s dead space and some installations that seem out of place, like Model Room, which isn’t a room at all, merely a shelf displaying a collection of wire models that are supposed to shed light on Eliasson’s creative process, but don’t. Room for One Colour feels like a cheapskate version of his famous Weather Project at the Tate Modern in 2003. You don’t want to linger under the yellow monofrequency lights because you quickly realize nothing else is going to happen, in contrast to other works in the exhibition. If there’s an experience here, it’s the experience of having stomach flu.
Even as you pass quickly through Room for One Colour, there are other moments when “Take Your Time” really does seduce you into slowing down and reconsidering the reality around you. It’s weird to refer to free-standing studio lights and exposed projectors as old fashioned, yet Eliasson exposes the sources of his illusions without seeming gimmicky, without seeming like the projection equipment was purchased with art school materials fees, then dumped into a room, leaving us to puzzle through what’s expected of us as spectators. We stand or sit and let the experience unfold in a manner that’s reassuringly familiar—maybe too familiar for some tastes. There’s not much frisson to Eliasson. Then again, he doesn’t create neo-junk artworks so common in other contemporary art exhibitions. His work is also free of post-ironic references to consumer culture—provided one forgets about his work for BMW. You want to touch the artwork, but don’t dare, of course. Instead, you wait until it reaches out and touches you.
The MCA Chicago “Take Your Time” exhibition continues through September 13, 2009.