REVIEW: Olafur Eliasson: Take Your Time, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

10 December 2009 – 11 April 2010

Olafur Eliasson, One-way colour tunnel, 2007.

Like Alice down the rabbit hole, Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Take Your Time’ at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art is an exquisite, perception altering trip into the literal and metaphorical landscapes of Eliasson’s mind and his art.

The exhibition, generated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, marks the artist’s first survey exhibition in Australia and the 30 selected works offer a memorable introduction for Australian audiences to the distinctive visual and conceptual language of the Danish-born, Icelandic artist.

Perhaps best known as the man who installed the sun in the Tate Modern in 2003, Eliasson’s interest in space, perception, colour, sensation and the notion of journey as it relates to the landscape around us has a unique resonance for the inhabitants of this sunburnt country, known and understood for its vast plains and dazzling colours.

Walking through the exhibition, which in itself is a form of journey through the landscape, it is hard not to be struck by the diversity of Eliasson’s practice, which incorporates sculpture, installation, photography, maquettes and, in this instance, a large table of white Lego pieces awaiting inspiration and construction from visitors.

Olafur Eliasson, Room for one colour, 1997

The prismatic, kaleidoscopic One-way colour tunnel (2007) is an engaging and very real entry into the rest of the exhibition and overwhelmingly it is these immersive works more so than the models or photographic works that prove the more successful. Room for one colour (1997), one of the earliest works on show, features a ceiling of monochromatic bulbs, whose narrow frequency of light casts the entire room and its content in yellow or shades of black. The effect, when looking out to the next room, is that it in turn appears washed in purple. It is a simple but effective work, like swimming joyously underwater through warm colour. It makes an effective companion piece to the work two rooms away, which holds Eliasson’s participatory installation 360 degree room for all colours (2002).

Olafur Eliasson, 360° room for all colours, 2002

Here, a large circular screen encompasses the viewers, who idle initially in the middle, watching the screen transform slowly from yellow to green to blue to purple to red. It is a very modern updating of the nineteenth century panoramic landscape and the brilliance of Eliasson’s work and wit is not realised until the viewer is standing nose to the screen and all peripheral visions disappear, leaving only the shifting colours and an infinite Zen-like sense of space and depth. Staring into what feels like a profound nothingness, there is something womb-like and comforting about this immersion in space and colour and it an adroit and clever work, made all the more so by its sheer simplicity.

Olafur Eliasson,  Beauty , 1993

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993

Later rooms, featuring small-scale models of later realised works not in the exhibition and photographic essays of rivers and caves feel obvious and abrupt in the face of earlier, more cerebral works. However, one of the most successful elements of the show is the sense of harmony between particular works and The inner cave series (1998) of photographs comes to later resonate with the dark, damp, cave-like entrance into the final room of the exhibition, which holds the ethereal and aptly titled Beauty (1993).

Like 360 degree room, Beauty is an experiential, reverential type work, with a single spotlight shone through a curtain of continuously falling fine mist to create a delicate rainbow that seems ready to evanesce.

As the viewer moves about the darkened room, as small children run gleefully through the water the clarity, vigour and colour of the rainbow shifts and the gentle, meditative shhh of the mist makes for the kind of quasi-religious experience people associate with church and or sunsets.

Olafur Eliasson, Multiple grotto, 2004.

There are other works that warrant mention – Moss wall (1994) and Multiple grotto (2004) being two of them. The organic, fragrant reindeer moss that covers an entire wall appears coral-like and unrelated to the large stainless steel grotto, until you peer into the spiky anemone-like structure: Eliasson has used large mirrors like an angled kaleidoscope to create complex cones based on a unique crystalline pattern found in only nature. And so it is that the spongy moss and the spiky space age steel, visually so divergent, yet poetically, one a microcosm of the other.

Works like Multiple grotto, Beauty and 360 degree room all encourage a sense of curiosity in the viewer and invite engagement, through play, perspective and the use of space. Participation and an active awareness of surround are central to Eliasson’s practice and ‘Take your time: Olafur Eliasson’ offers a thought-provoking opportunity to challenge the way we view the world and to see the landscape anew for ourselves.