The spectacle subverted

Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Who wouldn’t want to burrow inside a kaleidoscope, surrounded by captivating shards of abstract patterning in a shifting blaze of chromatic splendor?

That’s what Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson offers visitors who climb the stairs to the fifth-floor bridge at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the first American survey of his radically enchanting Light and Space art opened Saturday. The show cements the 40-year-old artist’s burgeoning reputation. Born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, he’s the first major European artist whose work evolved from a Los Angeles precedent -- Light and Space art, a unique perceptual aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s.

As a come-hither gesture into the show’s galleries, Eliasson’s seductive “One-way colour tunnel” can’t be beat. The dazzling purple-cobalt-emerald-teal interior is made from light-shattering translucent and reflective triangular panels of coated acrylic, suspended -- just like a visitor on the footbridge -- within a metal framework.

Designed for a vertiginous space inside the light-well high above the museum’s central atrium, the sculpture also radiates gentle humor. Turn around as you pass through it, and the tunnel walls go black. (Polarized acrylic coating creates the effect.) The jagged interior becomes an industrial-strength meat-grinder.


Don’t turn back! There’s no escape! You must continue on -- into the light!

The piece is a kick, which isn’t the same as saying it’s a trivial entertainment. Eliasson’s art always courts pleasure, beauty and play -- even spectacle. This is, after all, the artist whose hypnotic 2003 installation of a shimmering yellow-orange “sun” hovering indoors inside the vast Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern museum drew an unprecedented 2 million visitors.

Spectacle, in the recent critical lexicon, has developed into an unrelenting slur, a damning reference to a venal, transnational corporate society of media-driven distraction. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Guy Debord wrote in “The Society of the Spectacle,” the slim but influential volume about consumer mass-culture that, like Eliasson himself, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. “Rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Eliasson’s art doesn’t deny our couch-potato culture, where bombs over Baghdad are indistinguishable from the latest manufactured-reality TV show, while fragmented audiences are bought and sold to advertisers, just like the products shown in commercials. But his work recognizes a vital distinction. The passivity induced by spectacular society is the real problem, not the spectacle itself.


An experimental artist in an almost scientific sense, his research is directed toward transforming passivity. One exhibition room is given over to a partial re-creation of his studio, and shelves lined with funky cardboard and chicken-wire models look like something from Buckminster Fuller’s tinkering garage.

Eliasson’s art produces the opposite of listless inertia. He makes art-spectacles to induce active perception, an acute awareness that nothing exists outside human consciousness. Perception creates reality. If consciousness changes, so does the world.

Nothing in his color tunnel is hidden. The chromatic mechanism -- coated plastic -- is simple and exposed. The obvious similarity to a toy kaleidoscope makes it universally accessible, even to those for whom contemporary art is alien.

Its subtle difference from the norm comes as an eye-opening surprise. Looking through a kaleidoscope, a viewer is passive. The turning tube, with bits of colored glass tumbling inside mirrored chambers, is what acts. By contrast, the visual seduction of Eliasson’s tunnel pulls a viewer in, but your exploratory curiosity is what causes the glittery spectacle to unfold. Once that difference is recognized, there is indeed no turning back.


The survey includes 15 installations made since 1993, two of them specifically for this show, and seven photographic suites. It demonstrates an aspect of Eliasson’s art that is distinctive from the classic period of L.A. Light and Space, made by Robert Irwin, Maria Nordman, James Turrell and other artists. While that work is typically static, Eliasson’s often employs movement or engages other senses.

Rainbows are produced in falling mist. Random projections of rectilinear light seem to dissolve solid walls. Animation is born from light reflected off rippling water.

A tall wall covered with gray-green moss, which also puddles on the floor at your feet, like a curtain being lowered, yields an aroma nearly as pale as its color. By contrast, a hallway with a coarse plank-floor and lined with dark, faceted firebrick smells smoky.

The survey is titled “Take your time,” and the temporal dimension inevitably suggests engaged movement through sensory space. The title is an instruction from the artist, but the possessive pronoun “your” acknowledges the viewer’s primacy in the exchange.


Reminiscent of the advertising sensibility of Barbara Kruger, it also underscores the political dimension of a spectacular shift away from passivity toward sensory action. So does his use of Pop-colored crystalline forms, which recall Robert Smithson’s earliest mirrored wall-reliefs.

Eliasson’s sources are diverse. One surprise is how cinematic his art can be.

It’s self-evident in “360° room for all colours,” a walk-in panorama. This high, encircling white wall is blank, rather than painted with a dramatic scene like a 19th century panorama would be. Behind the scrim, colored lights are programmed to run randomly through the spectrum -- sometimes in an intensity so bright as to cause you to squint. Overloaded retinas produce squiggling afterimages.

Painted panoramas anticipated the modern motion picture, while Eliasson’s immersive installation is post-Imax. The enchantment is old-fashioned, the effect contemporary.


Among the best works is a theatrical arc lamp trained on a suspended acrylic disk, rotating in space at variable speed thanks to a motor attached to the ceiling. When light passes through the disk, a sulfurous circle is projected on the far wall.

That cautionary yellow, an Eliasson favorite, is like the acrid lighting in an urban highway tunnel. Light reflected off the disk creates a contrasting purple circle, which slides around the room’s walls as the disk rotates.

When the purple circle gets to the far wall, it turns bright white. The yellow circle simultaneously goes black. Both effects are basic optics, generated by the angle of the suspended disk in relation to the light source. But magic suddenly happens, as the white light passes through the blackness with a dramatic visual snap.

Just as your eye and brain are responding to what’s happened, the moving circle of light passes across your body. In the shared spotlight, the unexpected urge to tap dance, “Sing out, Louise!” or otherwise perform is strong.


“Space reversal,” a magnificent two-part installation, is the most Hollywood-dependent piece of all. Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” meets Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network.”

A stair leads to a narrow platform abutting a floor-to-ceiling window, overlooking the parking lot five stories below. Surrounded by mirrors overhead, beneath your feet and to the right and left, you see yourself reflected into woozy infinity on a ledge above San Francisco, like traumatized Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s tower.

Across the narrow gallery, a square window punched into the wall faces into blackness. Stick your head through and, again, surrounding mirrors reflect you into a nighttime infinity. The reflection turns a single window into a multitude, like an enormous apartment building filled with people poking their heads out. It’s as if you’re following Howard Beale’s frantic command to rush to the window and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Nausea and refusal -- the political quotient in Eliasson’s art speaks to our present historical moment in sharp, compelling and unanticipated ways. His subversion of the powerful entertainment spectacle shows an incisive understanding of the L.A. aesthetic of Light and Space, which after all was born in the belly of the beast.