Monday, June 09, 2008

Arte Povera, Impoverished Art

Take Your Time, the Olafur Eliasson show at MOMA, has me wondering what people have not been seeing in their daily lives that would have them excited about this exhibition. At the top of the escalator in the third floor corridor, yellow lighting has been installed. The effect of this is to leach color from all viewers and objects, so that everyone and everything appears in shades of grey. It’s a curious phenomenon, but even more curious is the fact that upon entering the normally lit spaces of subsequent installation rooms, though color is returned to their faces and clothing, visitors maintain a zombie-like grey affect, as if their minds have been leached of thought. And no wonder, for there is little in this group of installations to challenge the imagination. A wall of moss is a wall of moss is a look-alike for foam insulation. You can see droplets of fog in beams of light. A rotating prism casts color bands and shadows on the surrounding walls, but leaves the zombie-viewers reduced to striking odd “look-ma” poses, or casting rabbit head shadows with their hands. The brochure accompanying the exhibition announces that “by making bare the artifice of the illusion, Eliasson points to the elliptical relationship between reality, perception, and representation.” Huh? This is Artspeak for take your time reading the text because it won’t take long to figure out that where nature and culture are concerned, there’s just not that much for the viewer to do or see in these galleries.

By contrast, Mario Merz’s single installation on the next floor up, Luoghi senza strada (Places without streets), is a rich metaphorical space that combines an igloo-shaped structure set on a bed of twigs, run through with a neon-lit Fibonacci sequence of numbers. Merz was an artist associated with the arte povera movement of the sixties/seventies, and connections may be made to Eliasson’s use of simple makeshift technical devices. But Merz goes further. Through the juxtaposition of icons drawn from nature and culture simultaneously, he accesses an archetypal world independent of time, and both asks and gets more from the viewer.

Here’s another curious phenomenon: work that’s all about creating a space where the viewer is told to be active, can have the opposite effect of making that viewer passive.

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