The project of Olafur Eliasson has been to subject spatial and aesthetic practice to the rigors of both knowledge and invention, and at one and the same time. But if the spirit of the laboratory and of the counting house seems cold and out of place within an art practice, it is notable that every work of Eliasson figures at once as experiment or “reality test” and as a confident affirmation of the mysteries and enchantments of nature.
Eliasson’s importance has been to frame artistic action to make it rigorously historical, concrete, and specific to a “here and now” and hence to detach it from all metaphysical propositions about art and experience. This approach also detaches it from the incessant flow of trivial images that characterizes not only our economic, work, and entertainment worlds but our artistic ones alike. If the work remains difficult to situate, it is because it insists on exploring the foundations of artistic expression and reception simultaneously; its aim is to submit these together to philosophical scrutiny as well as to empirical experimentation, evidence, and proof.
For Eliasson, art is both the place where human “experience” in its purest form is invented and where it is to be ideally interrogated. There is no certain, or relevant, world outside of experience, and there is no experience without time. Hence the secrets of how we inhabit our world are to be found nowhere else but in the ways we employ our nervous systems to sample it, compile it, capture it, and transform it in and through movement. Eliasson’s essential discovery, consonant with that of neuroscientists in the last two decades, is that “the world” is not found but made, and made by our active and enduring encounters with it. Perceiver and perceived are indissociable—to alter one, without exception, is to alter the other.
Among his essential accomplishments has been to dissociate seeing from knowing, to reconceive cognition and perception as themselves productive acts and hence to turn most of the pieties of art reception, and our beliefs about how we inhabit our environments, on their heads. If, as he shows, we are exiled from fact, and if indeterminacy presides over most of our relationships to the realities of our world, we are therefore bound to one another in collectivities in entirely new ways through the same noble if desperate need to cobble a workable fiction from nothing but the particulars of sensation.
It may be said that Eliasson, like Duchamp, does not produce works of art. Rather, he organizes and transforms conditions of experience. The widely known Weather Project at the Tate Modern in London in 2003 is a primary example. Every Eliasson work entails the production of a machine that activates other machines—in particular, the sensation-producing body-machines of the viewers themselves. In the exhibition presented here are displayed 54 experiment-machines (they could also be called “perceiving machines”) that each explores an aspect of how the human body and nervous system orients itself in space and time by tapping clues implicitly or explicitly from its environment, from which it innovates its own irreducibly unique “life in space.” —SK
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