Take Your Time, Olafur Eliasson


of an Exhibition

by Katherine Whitney

Published on March 07, 2008

  • Museum: SF MOMA

  • Visit Date: December, 2007

  • Description:

    How do you get strangers to interact in an art museum? Create dynamic spaces filled with light, color, water (even darkness) and no labels! I recently went to see the Olafur Eliasson exhibit at SFMOMA and I felt like I was at the Exploratorium. I went with my two kids (ages 6 and 11) and my parents (ages 71 and 79.)

    We spilled out of the elevator on the 5th floor of the museum into bright yellow lobby. The light was pure yellow – monochromatic – and it distorted our color perception. We looked at our hands – they look weird and dirty. My dad’’s face was all blotchy. My daughter’s blue shirt looked grey. I looked at a total stranger. He looked back at me. It was our first clue that this will be a different kind of museum experience.

    We all walked into a round room with curved walls that emanated light from within. Again, total strangers looked at each other, as if to say “what do we do in here?” Some shrugged their shoulders and started to leave. Then the walls changed color! People widened their eyes, backed up, stayed to see what else was going to happen. A young woman walked up really close to the wall, with her face just inches away. ““I want there to be nothing but color in my field of view,”” she said to her friend. Within moments, five other people were doing the same thing, including my children who I’m pretty sure hadn’’t heard what she said. They were just following her lead. Another woman turned to look at me and said, enthusiastically, ““I want to come back here without kids!”” My kids insisted we stay there until the changing colors had completed their cycle – about 15 minutes.

    “Beauty” consisted of a darkened room where a curtain of mist fell in its center. A light shone on the mist and created a different visual effect depending on where you stood. If you were 6, you stood directly under the mist for a long long time. You were in an art museum and you were getting wet. Awesome!

    “Notion Motion” was another darkened room with a back-lit screen on one whole wall and several slightly raised wooden floorboards. Stepping on the raised floorboards caused a wave pattern to form on the screen. (Jumping on the floorboard made some really crazy patterns, and caused the museum guard to smile, before gently asking my son not to jump so enthusiastically.) My daughter discovered in the next room, behind the illuminated screen, a shallow pool of water with a light shining on it.

    “"When you jump on the floor it moves a board that makes the water move,”" she explained excitedly. So there was magic, and the opportunity to figure it out.

    Another favorite was “Space Reversal,” two openings into enclosed spaces that used mirrors to reproduce infinite reflections. If not for the lines of people waiting to step up behind us, we could have spent a half hour looking at ourselves from every possible angle. Have you ever seen the top of your head from behind?

    And here is an art museum label for the ages: Please Take a Blanket Before Entering the Freezer. “Your mobile expectations: BMW H2R project,” is Eliasson’s contribution to the art car program sponsored by BMW: a hydrogen-powered race car stripped down and covered in a shell of steel and ice and housed in a freezer. Visitors were encouraged to wrap themselves in one of the grey wool blankets hanging on pegs on the wall before stepping into the cold. It was dress up for grownups!

    We came back to this exhibit two more times, bringing different friends. It was never as fun as the first time. But for me, a museum professional always dragging my kids to art museums, it was a delight for once to see them dragging their friends from one exhibit to the next.

Latest Comments (6)

Strangers and friends

by Wendy Pollock - March 08, 2008

Wish I’d had your children with me when I visited, Katherine. But, even without children, this exhibition seems to entice strangers to become, at least for a little while, friends. Is it the “dress-up,” a child-like pleasure in being sprayed with water or surprised by a creaky floor? One of the mysteries and challenges of public space planning: how can we make spaces that make our urban settings a little less anonymous, a little more friendly?

Wordless orientation

by Kitty Connolly - March 11, 2008

Whether it was intentional or not, the gallery right outside the elevators (where I entered the exhibit) was one of the best orientations I’ve ever seen. I was fascinated by the monochromatic view those lights created. It was as if I had lost my color vision. Very cool. And it really drove home the theme of the exhibit; if you took your time, you realized that the artist had given viewers a new way to see the world.

One piece per room

by Andrea Bandelli - April 01, 2008

I also greatly enjoyed this exhibition. I found it so compelling that I spend nearly 5 hours on a Sunday to watch how people interact and move around. Katherine’s review is excellent, but I would like to disagree on one thing: “I felt like I was at the Exploratorium”. No!!! For me it was totally the opposite. While the Exploratorium is big, noisy, “unfinished”, this exhibition is clean, focussed (only one piece per room) and even on a crowded Sunday it was peaceful. Sure enough, people talk together and share their experiences. But they do it (or they did, the day I was there) in a very respectful way of the art pieces and the other visitors. The only exception was perhaps “Notion Motion”. But there, like it or not, a museum guard was able to keep noise down.
The design of the space has a lot to do with how people behave in it. I think this exhibition would be very different if it were in a big open space, for example.
I’ve seen other pieces by Eliasson elsewhere, and they all seem to trigger similar reactions: at first a stark astonishment at the physical experience, and then the desire to test it and share it with someone else.

Your experience

by Wendy Pollock - April 10, 2008

Peter Samis of SFMOMA is at Museums & the Web in Montreal, focussing on this exhibition in his talk about “Who has responsibility for saying what we see?” “The museum’s reality does not trump the visitor’s perspective,” he says. People can share their perspectives online:

An abstract of Peter’s M&W talk is at www.archimuse.com/mw2008/abstracts/prg_335001639.html

Great to see you at AAM!

by Wendy Hancock - April 30, 2008

It was great to see you at AAM! thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about ExhibitFiles.

NYC Version

by Paul Orselli - June 26, 2008

I LOVED this stuff! (Which I saw at MoMA in NYC.)

Two things really struck me:

1) The elegant simplicity and beauty inherent in every installation.

2)Why can’t there be more exhibits like these (that whisper rather than scream) in science museums?

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