Riverbed - Olafur Eliasson - exhibition review


Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark
20 August – 11 January


Review by Oliver Lowenstein

That Olafur Eliasson emphasises his Icelandic origins is well known to anyone with a passing knowledge of the artist's work. There is an ongoing thread found throughout this Nordic superstar's work, which highlights the island and its dramatic landscape as its source -- unsurprising since he's the child of Icelandic-Danish parents. It's rare, however, to uncover well-resourced knowledge hub, my mind was turned to how this body of research could act as creative trigger were it more fully publically available. Within Louisiana'sscenographic context, is this elaborate if simple piece of artifice detonation and/or design? Looked at from a certain perspective, one might argue Riverbed is as much design and architectural as it is encounter. Needless to say, there is no mention of the counter-inversion, the construction of a full-scale replica Louisiana, completely inaccessible, in one of Iceland's mountainous fastnesses -- perhaps it's only a matter of time? Danish-related subject matter in the prolific output of Studio OE, a point underlined by how, after nearly 20 years' practice, Eliasson has never, until now, been the focus of a major solo exhibition in Denmark.

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Some 40 tonnes of Icelandic rock and granite have been imported into the venue for the Olafur Eliasson installation Riverbed

Riverbed, Eliasson's provocative installation currently overwhelming the Louisiana garden museum and the sculpture park's southern wing building, puts this career quirk to rights in no uncertain manner. The entire wing, two sizeable gallery spaces and their circulation routes have had 40 tonnes of Icelandic granite rocks and stones, dropped, shunted and rearranged on to and into their white-cube ambience -- in part, I couldn't help feeling, for the sheer visceral challenge to anyone turning the corner into the spaces. The turning of tables may be flagrant populism, geology crashing through the art wall into and remaking a space laden with altogether different cultural significance.

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The exhibition has been popular in Denmark, with large numbers of visitors carefully picking their way across the artfully artificial natural surfaces, with, depending on choice of footwear, greater or lesser ease. Stooping to negotiate the openings between gallery rooms, and scrambling on the scree-like stonescape of Eliasson's Iceland highlands, you are also returned to the universals of human movement in the world. Inversion may be an obvious move, but the audacity of Riverbed's blunt gesture in bringing the outdoors inside also suggests the installation can be read as being as much about Denmark as its source country. After all, surely the algebra of relation would need recalibrating if the 40 tonnes of raw stone had been transported to another country's major art museum?

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Through the grey-stone tonnage, a rivulet pumped on a continuous water cycle wends its way, inviting interventions and delivering accidents, a specific detail in the work's interactive assumptions of the installation. Miniature stone cairns dot the room, while gallery attendants clear the woody ramped corridor entrance and the stream of pebbles, stones and other out-of-place matter.

While I was there a small child fell into the stream. Rather than retreating she delightedly made her soaked way along it, stamping her feet, innocent of any divide between nature and culture. You could feel the immediacy of the charm, even if the installation does nothing to temper those who believe Eliasson has inserted too much of the Danish Tivoli fairground spirit into his work. This much is clear: not only is direct contact demanded, Riverbed also forces the good burghers of Copenhagen (Louisiana is a half-hour north of the capital) into acts of motor control, exerting balance and other careful -- if instant -- responses to this choreographed consideration of the art of mediated walking.

The supporting roles to Riverbed's grey-stone installation split two ways: one towards movement, the other highlighting, arguably tangentially, the studio of one of Eliasson's key mentors and influences -- the Icelandic architect and geometrician, Einar Thorsteinn. The first of the three video works highlights a group of break dancers -- the reference looping back to Eliasson's teenage years -- moving in organised slow motion at SOE's Berlin base, while other staff pass by in real time. Straying between the mesmeric and esoteric, these movements offer an illuminating counterpoint to the audience's own unsteady progress across the rough terrain a few minutes earlier.

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The final room comprises a long table and hanging ceiling of the Icelandic architect's geodesic models, which is initially striking but then begins to pall. Thorsteinn, a student of Buckminster Fuller (once bringing him to Iceland to speak) and employee of Frei Otto, until recently ran a mini-studio in Eliasson's larger Berlin art factory. Various of the Quasi-Brick experiments, the five dimensional geometry that Thorsteinn was instrumental in developing, are on display. But the models sit without either information or explanation of this significant piece of research, a teasingly small segment of Thorsteinn's contribution. Faced with this room of models and knowing Eliasson's studio is such a well-resourced knowledge hub, my mind was turned to how this body of research could act as creative trigger were it more fully publically available. Within Louisiana's scenographic context, is this elaborate if simple piece of artifice detonation and/or design? Looked at from a certain perspective, one might argue Riverbed is as much design and architectural as it is encounter.

Needless to say, there is no mention of the counter-inversion, the construction of a full-scale replica Louisiana, completely inaccessible, in one of Iceland's mountainous fastnesses -- perhaps it's only a matter of time?





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