Art for Existentialism’s sake |

Art for Existentialism’s sake

Stewart Oksenhorn

Olafur Eliasson appears to be using his art to engage in a dialogue with nature. Among the Danish-born, Berlin-based artist’s works are “Ice Pavilion,” made of suspended icicles; the “Green River” project, which colored portions of Stockholm’s famed waterways a bright green; and “Der drehende Park (The Turning Park),” an installation made of stones in between a stream and a wooded path in a German park. Eliasson’s most noted piece, “The Weather Project” – which drew an astounding 2 million viewers to London’s Tate Modern last winter – was a lights-and-mirror construction resembling the sun. Eliasson’s work seems such a comfortable fit in the natural world that when the Aspen Art Museum invited the artist to create a work for its 25th anniversary celebration, Art Museum director Dean Sobel envisioned giving him an outdoor space in which to create a site-specific piece.After visiting the museum, however, Eliasson opted to work within the museum walls. Though Eliasson acknowledges that his work is informed by the natural world – in fact, the first thing visitors to his Aspen exhibit will see is a large, suspended snow crystal made of glass, lead and mirrors – he doesn’t see issues of nature as fundamental to his art. Instead, Eliasson says, his primary engagement is with the viewer. And the questions he poses are not just about the environment around us but of this more philosophical bent: What is the nature of the relationship between ourselves and that which surrounds us?”My interest comes out of the definition of the self, philosophically and psychologically, the constitution of the self: What determines the self?” said the 37-year-old Eliasson, whose “I only see things when they move,” a five-part installation involved with light, shadow and movement, opens in the upstairs and downstairs galleries of the Aspen Art Museum with a reception on Thursday, Aug. 5, from 5-8 p.m. “Out of that comes endless issues.”Eliasson’s art is intended to engage the viewer not as a passive observer but as a participant in the work. With “I only see things when they move,” visitors to the Aspen Art Museum will have colored lights stream across their faces and have shadows cross their bodies. The works are meant to be examined from a variety of angles and positions, the experience designed to shift with the varying perspectives. The movement, the fact that the art changes with the location of the viewer or the angle from which someone looks, is meant to raise questions about our role in the world. Like the recent film “What the #$*! Do We Know?,” which used quantum physics as a launching pad into existential issues, Eliasson uses his sculptural works to ask: Are we the creation or the creator?When asked what effect his work is intended to have on a person, Eliasson turned the equation inside out. “The question is whether the work has an effect on the viewer or the viewer has an effect on the work,” he said. “I’m not thinking of the effect it has on somebody. Normally, I think of the viewer having an effect by participating or engaging in the work. The work doesn’t change, objectively speaking. But maybe it does to the person who is engaging with it.”It is not only the physical changes that come with a kinetic interaction with the work that interests Eliasson. The memories and associations each individual brings to the work make for a constantly shifting artistic reality.”The way you come to a museum, you have your own memory, your own experience,” he said. “Even though you engage with it now, you carry your own senses. So if it reminds you of something, it has these experiential memories, and they will be very different than with another person.”If I turn it around and say, what effect does the viewer have on the piece, there is a much higher degree of individuality and subjective ideas. This interests me, what I call a negotiation with a situation. This is relevant not only in a museum or art context, but as a moral question we should all be engaged with all the time: Do I produce my world, or does the world produce me?”Eliasson was schooled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown of Copenhagen. The instruction there was not a strictly formal art training but an education that included Gestalt psychology and phenomenology.Eliasson credits his interest in philosophical issues as much to the time in which he lives as to his education. “Being born in the time of modernism and postmodernism, I was interested in criticizing the way that modernism, to a higher extent than we acknowledge, has formalized a way of seeing ourselves,” he said. “So my engagement has been to question what you could call the unintended confidence, the things we take for granted.”For example, the image of nature we have – we assume it’s not something we have produced. When we say this waterfall is beautiful – the water did not make that deliberate choice to become beautiful. Our culture has constructed the idea that the waterfall is beautiful.”Is nature really nature?Eliasson is so involved with the subject/object puzzle that he tends to see such dichotomies wherever he looks. The natural world, for instance, he considers merely the language through which he embarks on his artistic inquiries. But he has become so involved with that language that he sees incidentally the same issues in nature that he raises intentionally. “In my ongoing investigation of the technology of the observer, I need a media, or a form, to engage people in,” he said. “I have chosen nature – often chosen the idea of so-called nature, because there’s a question of whether nature is nature. “A pond or a plateau with water – is that nature or architecture? I’m not so sure that it’s that easily divided.”From the film world, Eliasson compares his body of work to “The Truman Show.” The 1998 Peter Weir film followed a man (played by Jim Carrey) unaware that his entire universe was being constructed for him.And in the world of the museum, Eliasson sees the kind of postmodern exploration that he says is at the heart of his art. Museums, he says, are no longer just repositories of paintings, sculptures and such but also present a way of taking account of the objects.”The art institution has taken upon itself to present art and also what it means to be an institution,” he observed. “Some art institutions still naively believe they are presenting the truth, like a universal truth. The interesting thing for me, in the last 10 years, is to see that institutes have, to a high degree, seen that they are presenting art and also presenting themselves as presenting art. They have a display ideology. They can generate a discussion about the experience. Because they are not a house of truth; they are not presenting a utopia.”They are presenting us, presenting ourselves. You see, but you also reflect upon your own way of seeing.”Celebrating 25 yearsThe opening of “I only see things when they move” completes the Aspen Art Museum’s quartet of site-specific sculptures celebrating the museum’s 25th anniversary.Roxy Paine’s “Defunct,” a 42-foot stainless steel tree sculpture on the museum’s front lawn, is proving to be a hit. Or at least a popular curiosity. From his office window on the second floor, Art Museum director Dean Sobel witnesses people taking photos of families and friends arranged around the sculpture, several times a day. Paine’s striking work seems to reflect the tension between nature and technology. The shiny, metallic tree doesn’t quite fit in with the surrounding aspens, but neither is it wholly out of place.Liam Gillick’s “Nineteenfortysixxisytrofneetenin,” also of stainless steel, has an entirely different effect. The 16-foot-tall box of many colors is meant to delight the eye, with its Skittles-like hues a dramatic contrast to the muted greens and browns of the Aspen Meadows lawn where it stands. The sculpture is also an insistent reminder of Aspen’s historical place in the avant-garde: The title refers to the year German-born Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer moved here, launching Aspen into the ranks of a hot spot for the arts. The location on the grounds of The Aspen Institute signals where the town’s avant-garde roots lie.Jason Middlebrook’s “The Beginning of the End” borrows the iconic ’60s image of Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” series. (Indiana himself was part of the Aspen avant-garde at its height in the late ’60s and made some “LOVE” works here.) But where Indiana’s works were bold, like a declaration, Middlebrook’s plastic sculpture of the word “LOVE” is decaying, covered with weeds and practically hidden in some overgrown brush by the museum lawn.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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