EXHIBITION REVIEW | Movement & Self-Reflection Through Olafur Eliasson’s Pentagonal Landscapes

Artist: Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) is one of the top contemporary artists in the world today. His conceptual art arises from his interest in perception, bodily experience, motion and a sense of self. Experimentation, collaboration, geometry, physics and weather are all part of Eliasson’s oeuvre. The artist had multiple international solo shows at major art venues, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate Modern in London and the Venice Biennale. Eliasson’s projects in public spaces include The New York City Waterfalls in 2008 and Cirkelbroen / The Circle Bridge in Copenhagen in 2015. He was also the Guest Artist at the Palace of Versailles in 2016, where he created site-specific installations.

Exhibition: OLAFUR ELIASSON Pentagonal Landscapes | EMMA | 8 February – 21 May

Images: Exhibition views – Pentagonal landscape, Olafur Eliasson, EMMA | Photo credits: Ari Karttunen / EMMA (click images to enlarge)

Olafur Eliasson’s Pentagonal Landscapes spread out across the main gallery space at EMMA. The exhibition display is minimalistic and open as it contains no trace of explanatory text about the artist’s practice or the titles of his works. The only guidance is provided by an accompanying booklet containing a graphic map of the pieces and a presentation of Eliasson’s main themes and artistic context.

Upon entering, the visitor is greeted by a massive piece of drift wood suspended from the ceiling. Its surface bears the harsh marks of time and weather, its center point surrounded by a myriad of magnets, carefully placed onto a stainless steel structure. When closely observed, it becomes apparent that the log is slowly moving, pulled by magnetic energy towards North or South. The Lost Compass, as its title suggests, opens a reflective process on the larger theme of navigation and the power of steering communities towards clearer shores.

On the surrounding gallery walls, three series of photographs showcase images of volcanoes, hot springs and huts from Eliasson’s Icelandic home country scenery. The snapshots of volcanoes and hot springs are as majestic when viewed separately as they are together.

As viewers walking along the walls, our bodies and our sight move from one photograph onto another. Much like Eliasson himself states – movement has consequences. Perspectives shift as we sense the precarious balance between macro and micro levels of seeing: some images portray nature from far away above ground, whereas others are close by, mere holes in the ground. At times we feel closer or, on the contrary, distanced from the depicted subject matter.

To further this parallel – visual art might also leave one feeling included or marginalized. When can we imagine ourselves fitting in and when is the scenery too foreign, too grand for us to step in? In his exhibition opening speech at EMMA, Eliasson points out the necessity for museums and other art institutions to continuously shape identities, to make audiences feel listened to and included in the conversation.

The hut series of photographs portray a collection of colorful mini-houses each located in an open nature setting. They seem solitary and unprotected at the mercy of mother nature herself, ties cut with the rest of the world. However, when placed together as a collection, their solitude is comforted. A hut is not alone anymore. If cross-referenced  with The lost compass vis-à-vis, this work made me think of the power of many and the moving-mountains energy a community is able to cast together. I do not know whether the placement of these two works is coincidental or done on purpose, but in my mind they developed a strong link.

A signature Eliasson work, Pentagonal mirror tunnel is the main installation in the show, commissioned and acquired by EMMA with the support of the Saastamoinen foundation. Five mirrors placed in a pentagonal setting reflect unexpected angles of the viewers and their surroundings. The pentagon as a geometric structure is not a random choice – unlike squares or rectangles, a pentagon cannot fully cover a room, without leaving parts of it uncovered. Similarly, the tunnel mirror reflections can only render bits and pieces of its environment. The installation offers no all-in-one image or perspective. Its purpose is to question the act of seeing itself, like the artist further explains:

”I became interested in a system or opportunity where we can further explore what is seeing, what does seeing really mean? Are we telling people what to see or are we proposing that they produce themselves? Seeing is relative to our effort. It can be easily challenged”, says Eliasson. The artist continues: ”By walking through Pentagonal mirror tunnel visitors can perceive the depth of the image: it is possible to see yourself outside yourself, to surveil your own position in the space? Detecting one’s surroundings is interdependent with one’s movement: What I do matters. My surroundings produce me back”.

Pentagonal mirror tunnel is in its turn surrounded by nature: on one side by the immediate Finnish landscape of Tapiola forest pouring in through the large, wall-size windows, and on the other by snapshots of far-away Icelandic landscapes.

The interactiveness with the surroundings leaves one feeling activated, engaged, non-excluded. Perhaps one way to view the installation is as a therapeutic mechanism we can return to whenever we feel that our voice is not heard, when we are marginalized or left outside a system.

The exhibition continues with more works, including a video piece screened in a dark room. The film, carrying its original German name Innen Stadt Außen, follows a truck equipped with a large-scale mirror navigating the streets of Berlin. The moving reflection of buildings, places and people onto the side of the vehicle creates a feeling of vertigo for the viewer, who often becomes confused by the juxtaposition between the mirror reflections and the actual surroundings.

Unlike other sumptuous presentations of Eliasson’s work, Pentagonal landscapes is  modest and unassuming in the best possible way. It is an open invitation to explore images, actions and meanings by giving the necessary space, time and resources to do so.

Olafur Eliasson – Pentagonal landscapes is shown at the same time with Joseph Beuys – Outside the Box at EMMA. Interesting parallels can be drawn between the two conceptual artists’ oeuvres, particularly so when reflecting on margins and societal change. Eliasson himself remarks that ”Beuys is becoming incredibly relevant today”.