The great outdoors
Olafur Eliasson: The Mediated Motion Kunsthaus Bregenz / Walther König, 2001. 120pp. £13.95. (ISBN 3-88375-505-2) Olafur Eliasson: Surroundings Surrounded - Essays on Space and Science Edited by Peter Weibel.MIT Press, 2002. 720pp. £23.95
Last spring, the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson occupied all of Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus Bregenz with a striking sequence of installations, making the trip to a gallery more like a hike through changing landscapes.
One floor was turned into a shallow pool of duckweed, which you negotiated on a narrow boardwalk, with Zumthor's luminous gridded ceiling reflected in the water that was not yet dense with weed. Reached by climbing up a single tight staircase, the next floor was carpeted with rammed earth (see picture), while the top room was filled with fog; a narrow footbridge swayed precariously across it. The whole event was subsequently documented in a compact catalogue, The Mediated Motion.
Whether in watercolour miniatures, Monet's 'widescreen' water lilies, or Richard Long's circles of slate, nature - variously mediated - is, of course, a long-time staple of art galleries. Eliasson, by contrast, seems at first to be making our encounter with it as unmediated and direct as possible.
But, while Cézanne settled for a strip of wood around his watercolours, now the gallery itself is the frame; and you never lose sight of Zumthor's satin-smooth concrete.
Moreover, as the photographs in Surroundings Surrounded make clear, Eliasson does not disguise the artifice that his installations depend on - in fact the reverse.
This second book is based on exhibitions in Graz and Karlsruhe, again conceived as journeys through disparate environments, in which natural phenomena are simulated by devices such as fog, ice or wave-effect machines. Huge quantities of moss are compressed to create a wall; water-pumps make temporary waterfalls; and Eliasson does conjuring tricks with mirrors, strobe lights and steam.
Certainly the results can be spectacular, and viewers are obviously engaged. But to what end? Presumably, in staging nature so sedulously, Eliasson reminds us that today all landscapes are constructed, that culture has won; while the audience, all their senses awakened (unusual in a gallery), and often intensely conscious of their movements (the Bregenz duckboards), are encouraged to examine their responses, not just applaud the theatrical effects. Aesthetic clichés of the Romantic tradition come under the spotlight, while at the same time - in the words of Surroundings Surrounded - viewers 'see themselves seeing'.
Maybe so. One thing this second book shows is that Eliasson takes himself very seriously indeed. Whereas The Mediated Motion is orthodox, in that its texts comment on the exhibition they accompany, none of the 700 pages of Surroundings Surrounded touches directly on the Graz and Karlsruhe installations. 'Early on, Eliasson expressed the wish to publish not a conventional catalogue but rather to have his work surrounded by scholarly commentaries, ' says the introduction.
So we find 50 essays, some already in print, others written especially, which are meant to place Eliasson's concerns in a broad scientific/cultural context. Among the contributors are Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Cecil Balmond, Diller + Scofidio, Anthony Vidler and Richard Sennett. The essays are (very) loosely grouped by theme, with photographs of Eliasson's exhibitions interpolated between the separate sections. Few readers are likely to approach this collection systematically - it can only be seen as a miscellany; but for anyone interested in exploring the connections between art and science, it is frequently rewarding (and something of a bargain).
Ironically, in choosing to keep such highprofile company, Eliasson does not necessarily do himself a favour. The images of his work that punctuate the book are often intriguing but, shorn of commentary or one's own direct experience, there is no way really to gauge just how resonant or profound it is. In that respect, The Mediated Motion is rather more persuasive.