On Olafur Eliasson’s Exhibition at MOT: Sometimes the river is the bridge

Olafur Eliasson
Sometimes the river is the bridge

Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo

June 9, 2020 – September 27, 2020

On Thin Ice

And sometimes a river runs through it and sometimes a bridge over troubled water… In 2002, Olafur Eliasson was an artist working with light, and his breathtakingly ethereal show at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris placed him in the company of illustrious predecessors. Then he went outside.

The MOT exhibition brings together both aspects of his practice, the more studio design oriented works, including lamps and bookshelves and vases, and those in which we can almost hear the cries of baby diamond glaciers being removed from their Icelandic home. Which merits discussion as to the privilege of the artist. But this is not the least of issues weighing down this exhibition.

As with all major international institutions, this show (scheduled to open back in March) saw its calendar revised, which could have afforded additional time to consider the display of the works. Surprisingly, several of them were crammed in relatively small galleries which did not invite social distancing. This is at odds with what we would imagine as the artist’s organic awareness. Adding to the eeriness of such proximity was the flatness of the lighting for those pieces precisely about light. Yet the artist was familiar with the venue, having spoken at MOT in 2019.

There is neither space for pause or path allowing for contemplation and reflection, which this artist’s project has invited over the years. One particular piece highlighted this, Sunset Graffiti from 2012, which invited spectators to create and perform their own light tags. Staff stood at the entrance with a ‘reservation’ list, the one room in which a crowd could not assemble, while unwilling to wait and stay too long in a closed-in space. The challenge of an exhibition about an artist who has come to embody the outdoor at odds with confronting something that made its way in, pushing back.


Art can’t have it all

Already planned in early 2019, Olafur Eliasson’s solo exhibition finally arrived at The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), after Japan lifted its social-distancing measures in June. The exhibition gathers a slection of works made in the last three years, interspersed with a few older pieces. Those earlier works, like Beauty (1993) shown at MOT, consisting of a spotlight shining obliquely through a curtain of fine mist, were quickly noticed and warmly welcomed as they managed to keep a charming balance between the scientific language and the artistic presentation to convey the poetics of nature. However, with Eliasson picking up a much stronger interest in conveying an environmentalist agenda as if he needed to be a spokesman for nature, the recent works either fashion scientific demonstrations for nature-loving beginners or occasionally repeat an existing visual language that has started to show signs of fatigue.

Beauty, 1993

A large part of the show underlines how much effort has been put in order to transport the works from Berlin to Tokyo while reducing the carbon footprint. To do so, truck, train, boat have been deployed so that the evil airlift can be avoided. But the cost of human activities is certainly not as simple to measure as how much fuel the vehicles burn; what math exactly are we doing here? Are we counting the consumption of the truck driver, the extra protection materials wrapping the works for them to survive the rough trip, the anxiety of the exhibition coordinator who probably couldn’t feel relieved until the works finally arrive? As a carbon-responsible exhibition, is information as such rather dispensable compared with the visual records of the crates’ movements?

Memories from the critical zone (Germany–Poland–Russia–China–Japan, nos. 1–12), 2020

Till the end of the show, The glacier melt series 1999/2019, as if blown up from a page in National Geographic, makes obvious how much the ice surface has shrunk  in Iceland over the past twenty years. In a previous room, several models of small ice pieces called Ice Lab remind us of Eliasson’s famous work, in which he shipped tonnes of free-floating glacial ice from North Europe to the front door of a number of leading museums. How far do the photographs and the Ice Lab have to be so that we can remain blind to the fact that part of the disappearance of ice is precisely contributed by Eliasson’s own action of shipping them away in the name of love for nature?

The glacier melt series 1999/2019, 2019

Ice Lab

What’s questioned here is not the artist’s good intention, but how helpful art can be when it comes to practical questions like global warming. First, art is a process of production and consumption with waste and pollution along the way which cannot be omitted. You can’t have them all. What art is capable of is to in its unique languages evoke the ideas that weren’t there in people’s mind so that hopefully people start to change themselves, like Eliasson’s 2003 piece The weather project. The mechanism is rather indirect. When the purpose to conduct a good deed for the environment becomes too literal in artworks, it simply may not work. Because art in such form is unnatural by definition. If the good deed in the end collapses into the mere belief that it’s been carried out, what’s left other than the anthropocentric self-satisfaction for both the creator and the audience? Exercising modesty is perhaps the best we can offer in the face of nature.

The exhibition handout invites us to “Please give the map another life by putting it in the reuse box as you leave.” Such a note hasn’t been seen very often in the museums in Japan. Hopefully such a gesture will trigger a desire to continue reducing waste, not just a performance to echo Eliasson’s environmentalist position. With plastic shopping bag fees in Japan becoming mandatory from July 1st, the long lasting obsession with packing and office paper in Japan has to stop. And we shouldn’t need art traveling halfway across the Earth to teach us that.


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