At his best, Olafur Eliasson can conjure enchantment out of almost nothing, whisking together light and space, drops of water, colour or glass to make work that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. In 2003, the Danish–Icelandic artist famously placed a setting sun, a mist machine and a mirror in London’s Tate Modern to produce an instant blockbuster, luring more than two million visitors to an otherwise empty hall to lie on the floor, commune with their neighbours, and bask in the rays.
If this type of minimalism-meets-elemental-art gets your pulse racing, then whatever you do, don’t miss Eliasson’s first solo exhibition in Latin America, ‘Your Body of Work’. It’s the centerpiece of this year’s expertly-mounted contemporary art festival SESC_Videobrasil, which also features the work of 97 artists in the exhibition ‘Panoramas do Sul’ (‘Southern Panoramas’). The show, curated by Jochen Volz – the artistic director of Minas Gerais’s stunning Inhotim and a longtime friend of Eliasson’s – is not the first time the artist has exhibited in São Paulo. At the city’s 1998 Bienal, Eliasson created an ice floor that doubled as a rink, encouraging spectators to try it out. That same love of viewer interaction is part of the current exhibition.
The title is a tease, chosen partly because enough mirrors, kaleidoscopes and optical effects pepper the show (and Eliasson’s overall oeuvre) to make the audience itself an integral part of the works. ‘The exhibition is called “Your Body of Work”,’ Eliasson says, ‘partly because you’re physically working to see the exhibition when you go from one work to another, from one SESC to the other, and to the Pinacoteca.’
Point to point
Spread as it is over three sites – SESC Belenzinho, the Pinacoteca, and SESC Pompéia – seeing the whole show is no small task. But the reward for hitting all three? Eight brand-new works, and the eerie effect of experiencing the exhibit as a network of flickering points that come to frame the living city among them.
In a darkened room at SESC Belenzinho, a rotating projector (Your Cosmic Campfire) displays lush rectangles on the room’s four bare walls. Opulent turquoise, violet, oranges and reds wash across the walls and then fade away to nothing. At the Pinacoteca, perception and its deconstruction are also dominant themes. The dramatic, ceiling-hung disc mirror (Take Your Time) in a bare room was first shown in 2008 at New York’s MoMA/P.S. 1 show. As the title suggests: stay awhile. The mirror slowly turns, one vision of reality subtly warping into another.
‘Several of the works are about how we orient ourselves, and whether reality is real or constructed,’ says Eliasson. ‘When I work, it’s a process. It’s not just where the artwork stops and the audience starts and the space starts.’ In the next room, Slow Light Sphere also moves at a snail’s pace, casting a fragile light pattern on the floor.
But the highlight of the space is Microscope for São Paulo, a huge glass-tiled, upside-down pyramid hanging around two of the Pinacoteca’s courtyard bridges, which transforms the space into a huge kaleidoscope. Crossing by way of the upper walkway provokes an intense moment of vertigo as viewers glimpse their own faces floating endlessly in space. ‘We as perceivers are also creators,’ reflects Volz, adding that Eliasson’s approach is a deeply humanist one. ‘You create the reality and the reality you see creates you.’
At SESC Pompéia, a human-scale waterfall, a labyrinth made of coloured panels, and six polyhedron lamps hanging over chess pieces – ‘like little planets’, says the artist – blend into the much-loved space designed by Lina Bo Bardi, who originally envisioned a waterfall where Eliasson’s work now flows.
Well-crafted though they are, some of the artist’s pieces can come off as anti-climactic, cool sleight-of-hand effects that are neither radical nor subversive. In a video installation (Your Empathic City) made with the Brazilian filmmaker Karim Ainouz, the artist superimposes squares of primary colours over streaming scenes of moving cars, cyclists on the Minhocão and kids playing football. But though viewers themselves ‘create’ some of the scenes thanks to an optical effect that causes the human eye to see colours that are not there, the work feels more conceptually intriguing than materially satisfying.
That’s not the case in the showstopper Your Felt Path, in which a large room is filled with artificial fog so thick that visitors can see only two feet ahead of them. Faces and bodies lurch into sight with disturbing proximity. Wander long enough and the fog lifts at one end of the room into a soft and transfixing white. Discomfiting, nerve-wracking and seductive, Eliasson’s last meditation on spatial orientation immerses visitors not just in a concept, but in an emotionally and physically charged experience, like losing your way before finding it again. ‘Art is like a language – you can use it as anything,’ says Eliasson. ‘It’s not so much about how you make art, but why you make art.’ And why does he make art? ‘To feel connected to the world, and to fight against the growing lack of inter-connectivity to the world.’
Your Body of Work is at the Pinacoteca, SESC Belenzinho and SESC Pompéia as part of the SESC_Videobrasil contemporary art festival, until 29 Jan.