Vienna Journal 02: Olafur Eliasson BAROQUE BAROQUE
“I find it inspiring that the Baroque exhibited such confidence in the fluidity of the boundaries between models of reality and, simply, reality. The presentation of my works at the Winter Palace is based on trust in the possibility of constructing reality according to our shared dreams and desires and on faith in the idea that constructions and models are as real as anything.” – Olafur Eliasson
Here it is… The very Reason for my trip to Vienna. I must warn you that this is going to be a very very long post because there is so much to share with you about. It has been a long time, since the last art exhibition, where I could truly say that there are so many highly provocative art pieces on display all in one go, that it is very hard to pick which ones are the best. On top of it all, the venue for this installation itself, the Winter Palace, is also a piece of art and a gem of Baroque architecture by its own right. Now you can see why it is going to be a long read, can’t you?
BAROQUE BAROQUE brings together a significant selection of artworks by Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson from the private collections of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, as well as Juan and Patricia Vergez, presenting them within the grand baroque settings of the Belvedere’s Winter Place. The former city residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), one of the most successful military commanders in modern European history, was also an important site of artistic and scientific patronage in baroque Vienna. Originally built as a lavish stately residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, then acquired in the 18th century by Empress Maria Theresa before being used for the Court Treasury and later as the Ministry of Finance, this jewel is restored to its former glory once again as an art hub of Vienna, housing the Belvedere’s collections and contemporary art in the baroque settings of the staterooms.
The installation is an encounter between artworks, aesthetics, and worldviews from two vastly different epochs. The exhibition challenges viewers’ habits of perception and proposes that reality can be understood as unstable and evolving, as a process of constant negotiation. Surprising affinities between Eliasson’s works and their temporary settings become evident as the juxtapositions explore the relationships between object and viewer, representation and experience, actual and virtual, giving rise to a concept of the baroque superimposed on itself, hence the name BAROQUE BAROQUE.
While emphasising the way spaces are constructed by history and tradition, Eliasson’s works addresses the viewers in their embodied experience. Through the use of projections, shadows, and reflections, the artworks foreground the relationship between body, perception and image. They anchor agency in the body and mind in motion as they invite the viewer’ active engagement by mirroring, fragmenting, and inverting their position within space.
In the entrance Vestibule, the light installation Die organische und kristalline Beschreibung (The organic and crystalline description, 1996) floods the walls, floors, and ceiling with swilling washes of blue and yellow light, an ocean of colour that loosens the viewers’ sense of the stability of their environment.
In Yellow Corridor (1997), monofrequency light is used to heighten the precariousness of our relationship to visible space. The lamps installed on the ceiling of the baroque staircase of the Winter Palace saturate the passage between the Vestibule and the upper ceremonial and residential quarters with yellow light, reducing the range of visible colours to yellow and black. By limiting the perceivable colour spectrum, and imposing monochromality, Yellow Corridor gives the visitor hyper- detailed vision and a heightened sense of awareness. In reaction to the yellow environment, viewers momentarily perceive a bluish after-image upon leaving the space. This work demonstrates that colour is never concrete or self-evident. According to Eliasson, “Seeing only one colour suggests that there are none at all. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about ‘red’ if there are no colours to compare it with. Colour is dependent on the existence of other colours in order to be understandable.”
Eliasson takes this sensation of heightened reality further in another one of his art work, Eye See You (2006). Here, a “solar cooker” – a prefabricated mirror-polished bowl that uses the ray of the sun to cook in hot climates – is mounted on a tripod. A sodium lamp attached at its centre emits bright yellow monofrequency light. Two dichromatic glass discs, installed in front of the lamp, change colour depending on the viewer’s position and movement, and also create a slight moire effect. The lavish baroque surroundings of the Gold Cabinet are reflected in the glass discs as well as the viewers creating a surreal experience of being trapped inside a kaleidoscope.
His optical machines and installations – such as New Berlin Sphere (2009), Your Welcome Reflected (2003), and Seu Planata Compartilhado (Your Shared Planet, 2011) – reflect the artists’s ongoing investigations of colour, perception, transformation, and deconstruction, an inquiry that is particularly interesting in relation to the baroque context.
New Berlin Sphere, for example, is created by two sets of twenty spirals, one set within the other, that coil to form a spherical surface. A myriad of rhomboid stainless steel panels are mounted on the outer set of spirals to form a fragmented, blackish skin. The inner set of spirals supports equally numerous panels of coloured glass in magenta, cyan and yellow. Light from the bulb at the centre of the sphere casts mixed hues from the glass panels onto the surrounding walls. This work takes as its starting point the CMYK model, a subtractive colour model that forms the basis for four-colour printing. The transgression of borders between inside and outside and the interplay of colour in the viewer’s experience are recurring themes in Eliasson’s work.
Meanwhile, Your Welcome Reflected consists of two discs of colour-effect filter glass that are suspended from the ceiling and rotate slowly in the beam of a powerful spotlight. Only a limited range of the spectrum of visible light can pass through each disc, while light from the remaining range is reflected. As a result, spots of complementary colours are cast on the walls of the Dining Room. Because the slow-moving discs are not synchronised, these projected areas of colour wander, meet, coincide, and overlap, generating a seemingly endless number of combinations of coloured circles and ellipses.
In Seu Planeta Compartihado (Your Shared Planet), a metal framework supports an arrangement of individually shaped and coloured kaleidoscopes. As the viewer moves along the triangular, hexagonal, rhombic, and square openings, faceted views of the space unfold in colours from yellow to green, turquoise, and blue. The process of seeing the space through the sequence of kaleidoscopes produces seemingly infinite fragmentary reflections. Seu Planata Compartihado touches on a recurrent theme in Eliasson’s work: the interdependence of perception and space.
A site-specific intervention in the form of a continuous mirror traversing the enfilade of grand rooms further disorients the viewer by folding and re-folding the complex spaces it produces. Wishes versus Wonders (2015), a brass half-ring, 5 metres in diameter, hovers over the parquet floor with its open side mounted to the mirror wall in the Hall of Battle Paintings. The reflection visually completes the circular form, producing a virtual ring that appears to pass from the actual space into the reflected space, uncannily traversing the surface of the mirror image, stages an encounter between reality, illusion, and the elaborate artifice of the surroundings, simultaneously multiplying lines of potentiality.
Another notable piece is Fivefold Tunnel, a freestanding arched passageway that connects two ceremonial rooms of the enfilade, reminiscent of a baroque arcade, or traillage. Composed of intersecting sets of parallel steel bars, the latticework structure, whose pattern is based on Ammann lines, displays fivefold symmetry. Five sets of parallel lines, spaced according to the golden ratio, cross each other at angles of 108 and 72 degrees, generating a complex aperiodic pattern. The use of fivefold symmetry in this work stems from the artist’s close collaboration with Icelandic mathematician and architect Einar Thorsteinn.
Within this terrain of doubling and paradox, Eliasson calls into question our received habits of seeing and experiencing space. His artworks make us wonder and reconsider, giving meaning to the enigmatic doubling inherent in BAROQUE BAROQUE.