Adam Jasper on Olafur Eliasson at the Fondation Beyeler

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Olafur Eliasson, Life (detail), 2021, water, uranine, UV lights, wood, plastic sheet, cameras, kaleidoscopes, common duckweed, dwarf water lilies, European frogbit, European water clover, floating fern, red root floater, shellflower, South American frogbit, water caltrop. Installation view, Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photo: Pati Grabowicz.

THIS YEAR, to much publicity, Olafur Eliasson flooded part of Basel’s Fondation Beyeler, arguably the most significant private museum in Switzerland. The south-facing glass wall was removed so that the installation could be accessed from the lawn by humans, bats, ducks, insects, or whatever other life-forms happened to be passing by. Gangways were installed just above the water’s surface so that bipedal visitors could walk through the southern gallery. The paths constituted a kind of labyrinth, leading through the rooms and back out to the grounds. The water was dyed with uranine, a bright-green biodegradable pigment. The ceiling carried a massive battery of fluorescent tubes that cast an even wall of ultraviolet light straight down on the water, causing the dye to luminesce.

We arrived after closing time. The garden was dark but luxurious, heavy with early-summer growth. Brought out by the first really warm night of the year, people gathered in small groups to walk down to the glowing rectangular pool. Illuminated against the darkness, the visitors were on display, the ultraviolet light making their clothes and teeth fluoresce. The clusters of Pistia stratiotes, or water lettuce, drifting on the aqueous surface were reduced by the strong backlight to abstract outlines, beautiful asterisks. I surreptitiously reached down to touch one and felt the furry, water-repelling leaf that enables it to float.

The distribution of floating plants and the title of the installation, Life, both recalled the Game of Life, the cellular automaton devised by the mathematician John Horton Conway to test how quickly emergent properties appear in simplified systems. That game has only four rules, iteratively applied, that determine which cells will be “alive” on each turn and which will be “dead.” Emergent properties, Conway discovered, appear very quickly indeed. Even in the hypersimplistic universe of the game, it is possible to create complex oscillating systems, gardens that grow or crumble or that expand in perpetuity; likewise, the water lettuce, one of the great weeds of the tropical world, will spread in its pond. The analogy cuts both ways. The screen on which this review is typed, and quite possibly read, is made legible by twisted nematics, common organic molecules that change their shape in electromagnetic fields to be either transparent or opaque. The glowing pond is a liquid-crystal display; your screen shares characteristics with a living membrane. The installation owed, in short, as much to screen aesthetics as it did to the classic signifiers of environmentalism, and in so doing took a step toward severing the romantic association between environmentalism and phenomenological experience. That Eliasson, or somebody on his team, knows this was implied by the digital side of the installation: a series of sophisticated webcams that mimicked the perceptual apparatus of nonhuman observers, allowing you to watch a livestream of the installation through the compound eye of a blowfly, among other creatures.

The installation owed, in short, as much to screen aesthetics as it did to the classic signifiers of environmentalism.

The next day, I returned to the pond. Rather than glowing like a vast LCD screen, as it had the night before, the few inches of water provided a murky veil for the museum floor. In the daylight, the installation very closely resembled its predecessors. Some years before The Weather Project at London’s Tate Modern made him internationally famous, Eliasson had flooded the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria for The mediated motion, 2001, and added uranine to six waterways around the world to create his “Green River” series, 1998–2001. Then, the language invoked was that of phenomenology, of presence.

Studio Olafur Eliasson has a long history of smuggling art theory into the business of artmaking itself, vertically integrating its own machinery for commentary. Now, however, the keywords have changed. Entanglement, natureculture, the Planthroposcene (an aspirational corrective to the human-centric Anthropocene), and so on all featured on the Beyeler’s website. The removal of the windows of the museums was described, in the parlance of our times, as an act of care. . . . Aesthetic critique is in any case redundant in an exhibition that promotes intraspecies equality. Perhaps more interesting were the project’s potential legal ramifications. As architect Jakob Walter pointed out in our conversation, if bats actually took up residence in the Beyeler and started to breed, provisions for the protection of endangered species would have kicked in, and it might have been difficult to evict them to reinstall the permanent collection of Giacomettis and Picassos. It is in this scenario that the theatrics of interspecies rights and posthumanism would actually have been something to grab popcorn over. A legal fight between a family of bats and the estate of Ernst Beyeler might, however, have revealed that the show was not really about dismantling the nature/culture divide, but, as is always the case in the history of institutions, about the will of the dead versus the hunger of the living.

Adam Jasper is a researcher at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (GTA) at ETH Zurich and edits the journal GTA Papers.

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