Olafur Eliasson beats viewers into submission with beauty. His immersive environments are overpoweringly serene, like an untethered spacewalk, a chasm beneath your feet. Yet, we don’t really know what a spacewalk feels like, and can only approximate its sublimity via simulation. Eliasson is a master at creating such simulations of nature, from sunlight to waterfalls and, at his best, makes viewers highly aware of their bodies by infiltrating their environment.
It’s almost frightening to see how the body responds to such intense changes, as if running through the maze of a scientific experiment. We cower beneath caustic yellow lights, and become easily hypnotized like common chickens in front of a quiet light show. Eliasson’s retrospective presents these stimuli in succession, gallery after gallery, and there’s no choice but to keel over with delight.
Whereas many artists who work on such a large scale make “installations,” or huge sculptures, Eliasson is instead adept at stagecraft. These galleries and walls are made to wrap around a viewer. Lighting, scenery, special effects—they’re all employed to a spectacularly entertaining end. “360° room for all colours,” from 2002, is an immersive round chamber, with walls that slowly change color. It approaches the enormity of a Richard Serra sculpture, but replaces ephemeral light for towering rust, rather therapeutic than fearful.
It’s tempting to pull a moral message from Eliasson’s art, which mainly draws its content from nature, and re-routes nature’s ability to awe and inspire through man-made means. A forest, in Eliasson’s hands, is a wall of spongy look-alikes. Wind is a fan dangling from a cord. Sunlight is a thousand-watt bulb. Mysticism is a light show flashing on mist. All this follows the just-closed installation by Tiffany Holmes at the MCA, who showed how man’s power-drain stamps out nature’s spectacle. Eliasson, though, shrugs at such protests. His never ceasing wonders depict a world without end. (Jason Foumberg)
Through September 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.