Monday, July 11, 2011

Eliasson II: Take your time

This is the second post about Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist. First one was about his weather project in Tate Modern, where he installed an artificial sun. This one is about an exhibition in 2010 in the Museum of Contemporary Art, where several installations on meteorology were on display. Tom Melick wrote a great piece about this project, which is of interest also for climate scientists. For two simple reasons: it is about weather / climate, and good poetry or art are as exact as science.

The leitmotif of Melick's article and his key to the exhibition is a quote from Mark Twain:
The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.
Eliasson as an artist does exactly what the weather does:
His project might best be described as an attempt to alter our sensory perception of the natural world via the principles supplied by nature.He is, like the weather, in the business of experiences.  
Our current discussions for example of recent extreme weather events are part of the long history of human response to weather events; weather that does something to us; weather  which is "in fact interested in how we ‘the people’ will react to its experiments, conjuring up new patterns and shapes to see how we might respond."  What an amazing idea that is: weather / climate is watching us, not only the other way round.

It's not easy to make weather; in fact,  Melick lists some of the staff who works for Eliasson in his Berlin studio:
A few of the employees to be seen working in Eliasson’s Berlin studio include: two electricians, an electrical engineer, two blacksmiths, a carpenter, a furniture builder, geometricians, artists, architects, a light planner, occasional model makers, as well as an archive department housing two or three art historians, a bookkeeper and a project manager.
Meteorology is (just as climate science is) a science that deals with predictions / prophecies; it brings a glimpse of the future into our "cultivated sense of space".  Melick has an excellent interpretation here of the ambivalent attitude of the audience to these prophecies from the unknown; here it is about the weather, but in my guess the same is true for climate:
Eliasson believes that “like a time traveler, weather predictions are able to get a small part of the yet abstract future and include it in our cultivated sense of space.” So if we follow him here, this might explain why weather forecasts – these little prophecies happening everyday – are so appealing.  Although we are forced to admit that everything is subject to the unstable laws of the unknown, it’s comforting to know that the weather tomorrow is more or less predictable. Yet we shouldn’t forget that this is often coupled with an equally fulfilling sensation when the weatherman/woman gets it wrong, as though their mistake is visible proof that the undecided and spasmodic tendency of the universe invades all areas of human measurement. In this way the weather is a rare teacher, since as Buckminster Fuller observed, ‘tiny as man is, he rarely has the opportunity to identify his measurable stature in history.’
Weather is on the surface. Eliason's rooms and installations are described as being on the surface, too. These installations do not teach much. Melick is criticial about over-ambitious interpretations; instead, he recommends that
Take Your Time might best be approached like a collection of climates ready for your sensory participation rather than a space where an epiphany should occur, or where a community can spontaneously commence.
He suggests that the exhibition might be a good remedy for those  "with a predisposition for being dramatically affected by the weather", such as people getting depressed during long periods of darkness in Nordic winters. The same might be true for those among us who get depressed from time to time during long periods of monotonous climate interpretation, be it alarmist or skeptic:
Once you’re in the space most glum and lugubrious feelings momentarily or partially wash away – whether you encounter the man-made rainbow or an entire wall made out of Norwegian moss.
For Eliasson, quite literally,  weather and climate are constructions; he constructs them for the audience. On the other hand, we make in his exhibitions or in the other one, the great exhibition called planet earth, experiences, our senses are affected, and our perceptions change according to ever new patterns; something acts upon us. When we talk about the weather or when we discuss climate - do we talk about nature or culture? This question doesn't make sense anymore.


Hannah said...

I have seen his work both in London and in Denmark and always really liked it. You might also find this article of interest.

Werner Krauss said...

@ Hannah

Thanks for your comment and the link! Might I ask you to explain what "I really like it" exactly means? I don't complain, not at all - I think, it would be a perfect comment on a climate calculation, or a scientific model, too. Like "oh, I really like Mann's hockey stick curve (or Zorita's and von Storch's alternate hockey stick curve). Beautiful!

Unusual, but why not! On the other hand, what is it one experiences in a Eliasson show? And what does this experience mean in comparison to the scientific knowledge we are normally here exposed to when confronted with weather / climate? I think Melick already gave some interesting hints in his essay, but it's so hard to grasp.

I would love to find a way out of the monocultural scientific climate talk, which sometimes is also a monoculture of the mind (to paraphrase Vandana Shiva).

Unfortunately, I have never seen a Eliasson exhibition.

‘Nothing you see on this show is fake; it’s merely controlled’ (from the Truman show).

Hannah said...

I will need to give this some thought to give you a proper answer and right now I am trying to meet a deadline but in brief I reckon Tom Melick hit the nail on the head with the following: "the main focus of Eliasson’s art seems to be about producing a subjective experience or response via a carefully constructed context, colour or object". Often art makes me think (and I should probably add here that I really don't know much about art :o) about the artist as in "what does this mean?" "What is the background or the experience behind this?" "What is he/she trying to communicate?" I didn't with Elissasson. In a way it didn't seem so relevant what he was thinking. The point seems more to be how you, the viewer, feel or react. I saw an exhibition of Elisasson's called "Minding the World" back in 2004 (I think) and "The Sun" at Tate. "Minding the World" made me feel happy and playful in that it made me not only see and sense things in a different way but also made me aware of doing so. The closest comparison I can think of is watching my daughters become aware of the world. They can spend hours watching an ant. Fascinated. When you are grown up an ant is pretty much "old news" and you just note that it is an ant. However, watching them being fascinated by things that I take for granted makes me appreciate how truly amazing, ants (and the world in general :o) really is. It makes me see the world in a different way and reflect on how I act in the world. I guess when I said "like" it is because some people (I heard them :o) don't "like" this sort of thing. They prefer a painting that shows great drawing skills or that tells them of the artist's pain etc.
Hmmmm, I am trying to pin it down but it is difficult. I am currently re-reading ee cummings and one of my favourite poems of his is one called "i like my body when it is with your" in a way there is (for me, this is subjective remember?! :o) similarities.....a sense of being alive perhaps?....rediscovery? seeing the same thing in a different light?
On the subject of "The hockey stick" it funnily enough had me fascinated by tree rings and I spent quite some time with my oldest daughter looking at wood from different trees......sorry if this is not much of a response....actually just reading what I have written it strikes me that the Melick quote above is actually really interesting in relation to science and other areas of life for that matter???

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks, Hannah, for this really in-depth comment. I think you did a wonderful job in describing "a subjective experience or response via a carefully constructed context, colour or object".

We are used to experience environmental pollution, for example. Garbage in landscape; polluted rivers; smog in the city - we learned to realize this, to develop a vocabulary, and even to implement political action.

It's different with climate change, which still stays on the abstract level of science. Each experience is denied by climatologists - no, today's hot weather has nothing to do with climate change etc. We have no (educated) sensory to experience climate. Eliasson fills space with light, color, air, atmosphere - his installations remind us that we indeed live in these "airy" conditions.

His installations are an expansion of our sensory perception. We become aware what it means to live with our feet on the ground (which we are used to) and our head in the air - the latter is maybe not fully appreciated and recognized. We use the word 'atmosphere' in a great variety of meanings, but we did not develop an understanding of "atmosphere" in a sense that fully covers all those meanings.

Heidegger expressed this in his famous term "Lichtung" - it's light that brings the world into being. I think it was Kristeva who argued (as a feminist critique of heidegger) that it's not only light, but also "air" - instead of "Lichtung", it's "Luftung".

In any case, what I want to say is that Eliasson maybe creates an artificial "Lichtung" or "Luftung" (a nightmare for Heidegger, who hated everything artificial -:)).

I like that it is not about education or protest or whatever. It's just an expansion, a making "explicit" what already is there. Climate change is real; to experience this, we need an expansion of our sensory perception of the air, the atmosphere. Melick describes those experiences - in the monotonous yellow room, he started to realize things he normally doesn't look at or think about. I can see the same in your description. Atmospheres influence or feelings and perceptions; it's difficult to grasp what an atmosphere is!

Hannah said...

Werner, thanks for thanks. Heidegger, eh? You are stretching me here but I will give it a go :o) I seem to remember him arguing something about one only being able to understand art and the artist with reference to each other but also that art is able of producing a community's shared understanding of something and so wouldn’t one of his main problems with Eliasson be that he thought that you should be able to understand art, although he admits that as soon as you do understand it the engagement is really over? Makes me think of Auden: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of the goods”. The ability to “barter” of course being one of the things that distinguishes humans from animals :o) Right, back to work. Forget about motherhood…….just try attempting to juggle Heidegger and preparing a court case at the same time! :o)

Werner Krauss said...

Sorry, Hannah, I didn't want to "heidegger" you. Just wanted to pick up the idea that Eliasson brings something into being - or makes something explicit - which might be called "atmosphere".

"Atmosphere" consists of physics, engineering, feelings, colors, perceptions, relations; it is more or less "fluid", and it is a medium.

What does it mean to take climate change seriously, to make climate part of our policies?

Eliasson - in my understanding - gives an idea of what that means. In order to change our environment accordingly we have to become a part of it. This is the opposite of the modernist doctrine, which meant becoming emancipated from nature.

In Eliasson's projects, the visitor is inside, not outside. Inside Tate Modern, or inside the rooms in the Museum of Contemporary Art. That's where future climate will be if it becomes part of climate politics - inside, not outside.

Thus, Eliasson works side by side with climate science: both make climate "explicit", each of them with their own means. They help us to understand what (and where) climate or atmosphere are. Science needs the help of arts, because big science always means big politics; this makes science so easily dazzled & confused. Eliasson's technological construction brings atmosphere into being and lets it unfold.
(or the like).

Hannah said...

Werner, no need to apologise, I rather like having my knowledge stretched and expanded :o) and I can safely say that nobody has ever done a "Heidegger" on me before, P.G Wodehouse, yes, but not Heidegger! :o) I am, however, tempted to be a bit naughty and ask you if you happen to know the difference between a horse and a zebra? There is at least two answers, one obvious, one less so. The less obvious is the more interesting.
Back to Eliasson, I think you might be right… do you get people to engage with and care for something that isn’t real to them in the sense that they cannot smell or feel it? Here the expansion of our sensory perception is of course extremely interesting and yes, I think you are right with regard to the importance of Eliasson’s art. I often think about how there is a big difference between intellectually understanding something and understanding it emotionally. It is perfectly possible to intellectually understand something without emotionally understanding it but to my mind you do not fully understand it then and therefore it will not engage your feelings in the same way as if you also understand it emotionally. Does that make any sense? I guess an example would be a starving child. You might always intellectually understand that it needs your help but once you have actually held a dying child or have become a parent yourself the matter becomes one of urgency. So how to translate this to climate change and how to use art best possible in this regard????? I am actually going to see another art work by Eliasson within the next couple of weeks, namely “The rainbow” which is the roof, symbolizing the Heaven (think Dante’s hell and heaven here), on Aros (art gallery in my hometown) and really looking forward to it…..forget about the pot of gold, I have always wanted to be able stand inside a rainbow! :o) inside
Right, now I have to focus on the discrimination case that I have coming up and more importantly where in London you can get a magician set as it is my oldest daughter’s birthday today :o)