Is Critical Darling Olafur Eliasson Just a Crowd-Pleaser?

It’s safe to say that OLAFUR ELIASSON, who recently wrapped up his first major US survey at MOMA and P.S. 1, is the latest international art world juggernaut.

His waterfalls in New York Harbor form one of the largest (and most costly) exhibitions of public art the city has ever seen.  He’s completed projects for LOUIS VUITTON and the BMW Art Car Collection, and his 2003 show at the TATE MODERN, THE WEATHER PROJECT drew more than 2 million adulatory visitors.

Curiously, he has yet to suffer the critical backlash that so often accompanies an artist’s rise to stratospheric fame. Alex Lessard-Pilon’s take on why after the jump.

Eliasson’s most popular work overflows with generosity, allowing viewers to enjoy it with the same passivity as they would a Hollywood blockbuster, and with the same pleasurable return. Offering many of his pieces as invitations — TAKE YOUR TIME (2007), YOUR NEGOTIABLE PANORAMA (2006) — he forges a new kind of participatory art: something that people can take part in without actually doing much and yet after, still feel they’ve had a singular phenomenal experience.

The welcoming temperament of The Weather Project, for example, encouraged people to lie down on the floor of the Tate’s mammoth Turbine Hall to see themselves in the distant mirror mounted on the ceiling. Thankfully, Eliasson doesn’t punish viewers with an overbearing political agenda, and doesn’t tend toward the “you can’t touch this” type of fetishized object-making. But if it’s always playtime, is Eliasson just a crowd-pleaser?  Will he endure?  His success seems to be hinged on a general exhaustion with pretension in the art world and on the friendly demeanor of his work. Purists might say that it’s not challenging enough, and that its compatibility with corporate interests is evidence of its flimsiness.

Like the BMW project. Many have identified it as an ardent critique of energy consumption, or a statement about global warming.  It’s beautiful, but there’s a reason no one has been able to say exactly why it bears such political import: it makes no sense.  A car that can’t be driven, in a frozen room…what’s the statement?  If anything, it’s a comical rebuke of BMW — by literally freezing the car in place — for building something that runs on liquid hydrogen, which currently requires enormous amounts of energy to produce.

Eliasson is more compelling when he manipulates light, sound, shapes, and mobility to mimic and celebrate natural phenomena.  By dyeing a river green (GREEN RIVER, 1998) or shaping a pavilion floor like the logarithmic spiral of a nautilus’s shell (SERPENTINE GALLERY PAVILLION, 2007), he succinctly and elegantly arouses the interest we have in our natural environment that certain conditions often allow us to forget.

In a similar vein, Eliasson is at his most profound when reflecting on the passage of time.  He makes pieces that self-destruct, like Green River, and pieces that are always changing, like the giant curved and spinning mirror above the crowd in Take Your Time. In these career spanning works (the first from 1998, the second 2008) an in-your-face picture of temporality competes with the enjoyment or transcendence of time. Mirrors and falling water, then, become vehicles for contemplating death — and for celebrating life, in its infinite, kaleidoscopic variety.