A glowing sun brought inside the walls of Tate Modern. Ice boulders transported from Greenland to the streets of London. Rivers turned a lurid green. Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) is an artist who seems capable of impossible things. His monumental installations and interventions summon natural elements – light, shadow, water, air, heat – and reconfigure them to produce immersive, Instagram-worthy encounters with the sublime. And yet, at the core of his practice is a deep engagement with science. As a viewer, it might feel mysterious, awe-inspiring, almost biblical, but the work originating from his multi-disciplinary Berlin-based studio is rooted in a rigorous exploration of the workings of perception.
For his latest exhibition, Your ocular relief, at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, Eliasson turns his attention to vision. The show takes its title from Your ocular relief (2021), the monumental artwork in the main gallery. Amid the hush of this darkened space, visitors are semi-encircled with a constantly evolving dance of light, colour and shadow. Against their jet-black backdrop these blue and yellow flares look like jellyfish swimming in the deep or intergalactic gases in outer space. Visible behind the large screen are the devices – lenses, prisms and mirrors – responsible for this, inviting contemplation of their ingenuity. In Edgy but perfect kinship sphere (2020), audiences comes face-to-face with a green and pink-hued glass polyhedron suspended from the ceiling, which radiates geometric patterns around the room.
Spheres and circles recur throughout the exhibition. For Colour experiment no. 106 (2020) Eliasson collaborated with a chemist to recreate each nanometer of light in the spectrum as a paint colour. The yellow, green, and purple that emanates from the centre of this circular canvas come from a photograph taken in Iceland in 2012 as part of an ongoing study of the landscape of his parents’ homeland. Mirror my calmness Buddha in me (2021) is made up of overlapping circular forms and ellipses that confound viewers’ depth perception, whilst Large chromosphere assembly (2021) presents 12 glass spheres in a circle, each a different colour from the rainbow.
Eliasson, a long-time collector of lenses and optical devices, is interested not just in how we see but the political implications of our visual perception. “We live in an age of the proliferation of lenses, not only in the surveillance cameras that pepper our urban space, but also in the hands of activists who are aiming them back at the instruments of power,” he says. “I have become intrigued by the notion of the ‘ocular,’ as we progress beyond the single-gaze of the panopticon to the decentralisation of the authority of the lens. Today, many of us now carry lenses with us through our various devices, so the question arises – who is the owner of the narrative?”
Olafur Eliasson: Your ocular relief runs until 24 April at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Visit here.
Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton
- Olafur Eliasson, Edgy But Perfect Kinship Sphere, 2020
- Olafur Eliasson, Your Ocular Relief, 2021