Olafur Eliasson has an ability to force his viewers to confront their relative smallness in the universe and to appreciate the vastness of the world in which they inhabit. On view at the Danish-Icelandic artist’s exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar, The listening dimension, is a variety of installation works, sculptures, and paintings spanning both floors of the gallery. The show shares its name with three expansive constructions downstairs, where the viewer is immediately struck by what appears to be six steel rings floating in thin air. This optical illusion is extremely convincing, but the structures soon reveal themselves to be metal semi-circles attached to mirror surfaces, leaving the viewer disoriented and wondering: when does reality end and reflection begin? These works are the most impressive included in the exhibition, as they are a demonstration of Eliasson’s mastery in exploring the intricacies and limits of human perception.
Another concept Eliasson explores is light sensitivity. Also downstairs is Rainbow Bridge, a series of 12 glass spheres that display the colors of the rainbow, set on steel stands. Similarly to the first three works, Rainbow Bridge demands the engagement and movement of the viewer, as the colors shift as she proceeds past the orbs. Upstairs is Space resonates regardless of our presence, a series of three works in which a complex instrument that involves a glass band projects circles of light against the walls of the gallery space. By collecting and directing light beams, this fascinating technology that was devised for use in lighthouses has the power to increase visibility even in pelagic darkness. The symbolic possibilities are obvious, endless, and a little too easy.
Also on the second floor is Midnight Sun, a convex mirror reminiscent of Anish Kapoor’s famous wall-mounted sculptures. Uniquely, though, there is a lamp installed behind Eliasson’s mirror, which creates a halo of light around the reflection. This work ironically addresses perception and light – abstract and complicated topics that are ubiquitous in the artist’s oeuvre – in a manner well-suited for the age of Instagrammable art, as evidenced by the line of Millennials waiting to take selfies.
Suspended between both floors is Rouge navigator, a makeshift compass comprised of a log and magnetic rod. Eliasson is clearly employing the social meaning of a compass: the device tells us how we fit into the broader context of the world, along with having a universalizing force, as it points north for everyone. An older form of the technology than the works with which it is juxtaposed, Rouge navigator carries a beautiful and refreshing simplicity.
Colour experiment no. 78, a series of 72 paintings that show the entire visible color spectrum, isn’t quite as awe-inspiring as the rest of the exhibition. Perhaps this is because of the political context of its creation: Colour experiment was made in 2015, and the gallery’s press release insists on politicizing the other works in the exhibition – which are from 2017 – by claiming that they are in response to the 2016 U.S. elections. Although this might seem like a stretch, it isn’t. Space resonates regardless of our presence emphasizes that technology and hope can shine light into the darkest night; Rouge navigator is a reminder that we are all human despite our differences, and in the face of political upheaval, we can all still coexist.
In a study published in 2016, psychologists Laura Janusik and Margarete Imhof assert that there are four dimensions to listening: basic information acquisition, relationship building, such as helping and comforting; learning, which includes interpreting and understanding; and “evaluative listening,” a deeper dimension containing answering, arguing, and being critical. In fact, there are a limitless number of potential interpretations for the exhibition’s title, The listening dimension. Indeed, Eliasson said, “At its best, art is an exercise in democracy; it trains our critical capacities for perceiving and interpreting the world. Yet art does not tell us what to do or how to feel, but rather empowers us to find out for ourselves.”
Eliasson, who installed melting Arctic icebergs in Paris during the 2015 Paris Climate Conference to illuminate the calamitous effects of climate change, is now grappling with working during a time when the head of the EPA doesn’t believe that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming and the U.S. President is approving oil pipelines that scientists warn will have disastrous and indelible environmental consequences. Considering the overt significance of his 2015 project, one might expect that Eliasson would respond to the current political climate with despondence or indignation, but he decides otherwise; instead, Eliasson utilizes subtlety and ambiguity in his reflection on the beauty of light, science, space, and the collective experience.
The exhibition will remain on display at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery until April 22.