OLAFUR ELIASSONThe Open Pyramid, 2016, Steel, aluminum, mirror foil, wood, paint and spotlight, dimensions variable. Installed at the Long Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, neugerriemschneider, Berlin, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Nothingness is not Nothing at All

Olafur Eliasson

China Denmark
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Widely recognized among art-world intelligentsia, Olafur Eliasson recently became the first internationally acclaimed foreign artist to have a major solo exhibition at Shanghai’s Long Museum. Some 30 works from the late 1990s to the present, including installations, sculptures, photographs, video, paintings and drawings, amply filled the museum’s cavernous spaces in March. The exhibition, however, felt part wacky science fair, part magician’s emporium, or a provisional laboratory for some of Eliasson’s all-too-familiar investigations. It was perhaps a tad overly instructive, though no didactic texts were found anywhere in the museum, and unfortunately the show was not the cool-handed, minimalist approach that it could have been.

Like other artists one might categorize as poet-phenomenologists, Eliasson is known for grand acts of magic. For The Weather Project (2003), he created a huge artificial sun that transformed the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern into a concrete beach party and misty netherworld—an ambitious work that embodied the wow-factor we have come to expect from this Danish-Icelandic illusionist. At the Long Museum was his latest commissioned work, The Open Pyramid (2016), a solidly built, low-hanging tent-like structure of steel and aluminum, with a nearly seamless mirror-foil interior, which functioned both as a passageway and an atrium at the exhibition’s entrance. From the outside it could be mistaken for a rooftop construction site. The interior, however, is dramatically lit by a single industrial spotlight hanging from the highest center point. A crisp, circular pool of light on the floor suggests moonlight, or a spotlighted stage, inviting the viewer inside. Hovering overhead and reflected on all interior sides of the pyramid are four luminous moons, which slightly disorient the viewer once inside. Surrounded by their own reflection and that of others moving about the space, viewers get the sense that their bodies could be in a different dimension. The illusion and physics of distance and displacement are well-earned materials of Eliasson’s toolkit; yet, while clearly the exhibition’s centerpiece, The Open Pyramid lacked the razzle-dazzle one would have hoped for in Eliasson’s Shanghai debut.

Eliasson has always produced works that focus on notions of perception and how one interprets the everyday world. He is enchanted by prisms, optical devices, crystals and mirrors and is known for using elemental materials such as stone, water, ice and light. Tucked within the Long Museum’s first floor were earlier works worth seeking out, such as Camera Obscura (1999), which transformed the building into a pinhole camera by reflecting the scenery of foliage outside the museum and projecting them onto a large, suspended lens located inside. There was also Happiness (2011), comprising a controlled fan, a bubble machine and a black light illuminating a shallow trough of soapy water. Happiness spanned the entire length of a dark corridor and was viewed through a narrow, eye-level slit running along a wall. Here, the viewer’s ability to observe the work was controlled by Eliasson’s artificial horizon line. Soap bubbles, glowing with an otherworldly intensity, gently drifted down from above into the trough, gathering, merging and then bursting, like at the ocean’s shoreline.

Viewing Happiness, one was reminded of the visionary American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, who called himself a “comprehensive design-scientist” and was someone Eliasson would readily acknowledge as a seminal influence. Fuller’s lifelong work involved exploring primary structures in nature in order to create what we know today as geodesic geometry, which frequently appears in Eliasson’s work. Most notably it is seen in the geodesic design of Your Silent Running (2003/2016), a free-standing, white fiberglass pod resembling a cloud. Viewers can enter to see subtle threads of water droplets under attack by a strobe light, which causes them to appear as though raining down in slow motion. This work, like The Open Pyramid, exemplifies the artist’s propensity to overdramatize the ephemeral.

For a world-class artist to come to a world-class city such as Shanghai and leave its audience slightly underwhelmed wasn’t what some might have expected. Ultimately, less could have been more, and had Eliasson opted to simply exhibit one grand-slam work, viewers might have been more inclined to feel that they were in the presence of wonder.