August 8, 2010

Drowsy mind of the creator

Some rooms into Olafur Eliasson’s Inner City Out exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, I’m hit by a very depressing vision. First let me ask, are you aware of the myth of the Studio Eliasson? It’s often portrayed as an experimental laboratory: scientists selected for their degree of madness meet with modelers selected for their degree of geekdom, all donning white overcoats to experimentally verify which of nature’s laws will translate into forms that secretly advance mankind while pretending to do no more than tickle the aesthetic funnybone. But lo and behold, here in front of us is a table littered with tons of small models that look like hesitant little mathematical formulae glued together from parts of plywood, with little filmic projections on their irregular surfaces that relate the model as it lies there to the single moment in its life when it seemed to make some sort of sense to the drowsy mind of its creator, before it had to take on the status of art straight-faced . . . It’s sort of sad—because all that the accumulated brainpower within the Studio Eliasson can come up with appears to be mildly schematic-looking bric-a-brac. When what we really needed from art was the birth of a monster glued together from the rotting remnants of the applied sciences.

Perhaps that is too much to ask. The exhibition is a good arrangement of well-timed one-liners, and some of them work very well. When I look into the Mercury Window, a huge bumpy mirror facing me in an early room, the reflections indeed behave like quicksilver due to the irregular surface of the piece. Is that science already? Or a metaphor on whoever steps in front of it? It’s not the only work where the viewer gets to act out a part, but since our reflections or outlines mostly tend to be aestheticized here, I’m not sure if they get us anywhere beyond the constrictions of our silhouette. (At least my colored quintuple shadow up against the wall looks kind of cooler than most of the stages-of-an-ape-developing-into-modern-man-during-mid-gallop schematics, I grant you that.)

Curator Daniel Birnbaum stresses that in works like these you don’t have an art object to look at. You have a very simple arrangement of conditions, with a row of spotlights on the floor, and the work is sort of the meeting that takes place between the viewer and a space carefully prepared by the artist. Which in theory means that the manifestation of the work could be somehow open-ended. In reality each viewer becomes alike.

It’s probably most fruitful to understand the best part of the exhibition as op art extended into space and situation, where you try to decipher the aesthetic rules a work follows, then try to decide if these rules make the work look either good or bad, or if they don’t matter at all except that they help you recognize the artist and tag stuff accordingly. But somehow the looks of these simple arrangements and apparatuses were the only thing that interested me on a deeper level. I became more interested in the machinery that seemed to want to hide behind the image, it seemed the obvious point worth pondering over. Because many of the pieces sit quite uncomfortably between slick high-production values and a careless sketchiness that suggests an idea is more valuable than the finished work. Would the art be better if everything had been pimped up to hectoring perfection? Or more plainly, if there had been more money spent? Maybe so, there was a whole wing drowned in colored fog, titled Your Blind Movement—this could have been a thoroughly emotional walk through psychedelic John Carpenter territory, except for the wood paneling of the floor, which refused to lend itself to out-of-your-mind experiences and patiently told you, dude, you’re still in a museum, just follow the grain and you’ll be fine.

That same question of production values also applies to the centerpiece of the exhibition, Mikroskop, pictured above. You have to enter through its behind-the-scenes, a huge scaffold covered with some sort of plastic sheets, so you’re sort of warned as what to expect, space wrapped in itself cheaply. Still, when you enter the room, it seems vast, the light seems glorious, the space seems vague but connected to something out there, up there . . . until . . . you regain your senses and start to connect all the dots and explain the illusion to yourself. Which happens rather quickly, and the moment you go into these details, the whole thing is no longer that aesthetically pleasing. The visible section of the dome doesn’t seem cut out very well, some of the braces are interrupted rather rudely, some seem left hanging . . .

Anyway, the artist states in interviews that the work is situated right at the central theme of his exhibition: Inner City Out. Through the glass dome the Berlin light shines and is supposed to let in some of the spirit of the city. Of course it sort of does, by power of pure situatedness, but the glass is frosted, which renders the light as anonymous as sunrays can possibly become, and the whole arrangement really doesn’t feel particularly communicative. Forget about circumstance, the title of the piece is much more evocative: Mikroskop, and if it’s a microscope, we’re the little specks caught down there in a drop of liquid on a slate, being watched dispassionately by a giant blind eye from above which refracts its thirst for knowledge into a kaleidoscope of blank screens. This is a reading that translates into pure emotion for a split second before spatial orientation sets in, and we’re back into a dome wrapped by mirror foil (remember that wood paneling on the floor in the other room as a similar distraction?).

If the inner-city-out theory immediately falls flat (imho, obviously), I’m left in a room covered with thin reflective plastic skin drawn tightly over standard scaffolding, reflecting rather good but not knock-down-dead late 19th century architectural engineering, the sky, and unfortunately myself over and over (and how can an army of scientists be not aware that my presence in an artwork destroys all of its deeper meaning. Wait, where was I?). That plastic skin produces wrinkles and crackles that quickly become the aesthetic focus of the room (schooled as we have been in op-art tactics through the warped mirrors etc. earlier in the exhibit). It’s optic glitch in an analogically produced virtual distance. One could use that as a metaphor and label the piece as lo-fi poetry built out of a grand idea executed in carelessly applied mirror foil.

And that’s really the point for me. I do suspect quite a percentage of the work on display is manufactured to elicit spontaneous gasps of aesthetical appreciation. But within the pretty confused mock-scientific invitations to easy ogeling, there’s some rather serious poetry collecting at the fringes. Growing like mildew, one would hope, and rotting the studio myth from the inside out.

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