Letter from Copenhagen
HumlebæKLouisiana Museum Of Modern Art
OLAFUR ELIASSON Riverbed
August 20, 2014 – January 1, 2015
KøBenhavnLouisiana Museum Of Modern Art
SMK – NATIONAL GALLERY OF DENMARK
August 20, 2014 – January 1, 2015
I am indebted to the Louisiana Museum for sparking my interest in emerging Nordic art. Starting in the mid-1990s, my visits provided first encounters with the work of several artists who have held my attention ever since: Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Olafur Eliasson, Elmgreen & Dragset, Nils Erik Gjerdevik, Henrik Håkansson, Superflex, and Tal R. My appreciation of all of these artists was bolstered by the Louisiana’s singular articulation of place through its immersive setting, an architectural and environmental statement that continues to support this museum’s particular commitment to the social experience of all types of modern and contemporary art. My 1990s experiences were recently reinforced during two visits to the Louisiana, and not only by the visitors who still treat the museum as an accommodating home. (The entrance is through the unassuming mansion that was on the property when Knud W. Jensen founded the museum in 1958.) This past April I was knocked out by an impeccable survey of the early 20th-century Swedish artist Hilma af Klint that came off as resolutely current, and in October I was nearly as overwhelmed by Olafur Eliasson’s “Riverbed” (2014), a landscape of rocks and running water inspired by his native Iceland and set upon raised (and well-concealed) platforms that ran through the entire length of the museum’s south wing.
Eliasson’s substantial intervention is, of course, a spectacle on par with many of the other projects that he has created and engineered over the years, and it delivered on what I took as its promise to provide an experience that interacted in provocative ways with what the museum already produces on its own: a perpetual oscillation of interior and exterior combined with the careful incorporation of works of art into a wandering journey that somehow doesn’t disrupt the ability of those objects to hold our focus—and even our wonder—beyond a moment. The Louisiana constantly asserts itself as a walk, so Eliasson’s work is, at its core, a deliberate repetition, a walk within a walk. It is here where Eliasson’s intervention intersects provocatively with Biography, a concurrent exhibition of the collaborative sculptural installations of Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset at the SMK—the National Gallery of Denmark. It is worth noting that the SMK’s hybrid architecture is itself connected by a series of walkways between the original 1890s building and another built in 1998, but, more strikingly, the installation of Elmgreen & Dragset’s work also relied upon a mindful re-performing of the journey of their work, a walk fraught with nothing less than core issues of life and death, even at its lightest moments, like when encountering “Welcome” (2014), a maybe-too-romantic fender-bender of a sculpture made up of replicas of an Airstream-esque trailer and the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.
Elmgreen & Dragset share Eliasson’s high level of ambition, as demonstrated, for example, by the placement of “The One & the Many” (2010), in the entrance hall of the SMK. A life-size four-story replica of an apartment building with windows that allow views into some of the apartments, each furnished very specifically (in one, the television was on showing the U.K. “X Factor”), it provocatively infuses voyeurism with a social conscience. This was particularly effective in the insertion of an earlier work into one of the ground-floor apartments: “Andrea Candela, Fig. 3 (Virtual Romeo)” (2006), is a complete mise-en-scène, including a wax figure of a young man lying on a small mattress on the floor. He is, in fact, the product of the most sought-after qualities on a dating website called “Gay Romeo” (it’s on the screen of a laptop next to him on the floor), a constructed identity that the artists have also uploaded to the site so that actual users can write to “him.”
Without the addition of the social complexity (and slight weirdness) of “Andrea Candela,” the spectacular presence of Elmgreen & Dragset’s apartment block would have kept it more in line with the relatively easier read of “Welcome.” That said, it was in the rooms and hallways that were built for a presentation of Elmgreen & Dragset’s “Powerless Structures” works alongside several other pieces that the survey demonstrated their long-standing ability to make the anonymous deeply personal, hence the title Biography. Walking amidst, to highlight a few works, a baby left in front of an A.T.M. (“Modern Moses” ), two pairs of men’s jeans and underwear abandoned on the floor (“Powerless Structures, Fig. 19” ), a bunk bed in a prison cell with the top bunk facing the bottom (“Boy Scout” ), and several dysfunctional doors (for example, “Powerless Structures, Fig. 123” , with hinges and a door handle on each side), I found myself being moved, step by step, beyond both spectacle and any interpretational limits to something open, speculative, and reverberating.
Eliasson’s “Riverbed” could have suffered a similar closure if not for the inclusion of other works in his exhibition: “Model Room” (2003), and three more recent films. As a tabletop presentation of Eliasson’s studio procedures, “Model Room” provided useful insight into the inner workings of his enterprise (the models were developed in collaboration with the Icelandic artist Einar Thorsteinn). The films, however, were even more crucial for breaking the spell of “Riverbed,” augmenting it with a completely different range of imagery that at its best could be called magical. This was especially the case in “Innen Stadt Aussen” (2010), shot in Berlin. Tracking a truck outfitted with a large mirror on its side, the visual ride it took me on (while sitting in a theater space outfitted with wood bleachers) might have impacted my experience of “Riverbed” even more than it did, had I not decided in the end to retrace my steps and walk back to the entrance of the museum to start once again by going the other direction—another way that makes me now realize that the ongoing promise of yet another way is what makes the work of these three artists important.