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Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005


Elemental expressions

Special to The Japan Times

Art comes in many forms, but all those forms have in common their intimate dependence on light (something to bear in mind on this, the shortest day of the year). Without this miraculous form of energy you wouldn't know the difference between an Old Master canvas, an Abstract Expressionist work or an unopened pot of paint.

News photo
Olafur Eliasson's "Shadow Lamp" (2005)

One artist who has realized this truism more literally than most is Olafur Eliasson, a Dane who has made the "light bridge" between the art object and the audience the focus of much of his work. Eliasson has also worked with other basic elemental forces, such as temperature and pressure, but for "Your Light Shadow," his first solo show in Japan, at Tokyo's Hara Museum, the emphasis is mainly on light and shadow, with water playing a supporting role.

Internationally acclaimed following his "Weather Project" at London's Tate Modern in 2003, when he played God by installing a giant sun-like disc and controlling the atmosphere and mood of the Tate's massive central atrium, Eliasson is now raising his profile in Japan with his present show and a future project that places a permanent installation on the roof of the Art Deco building that is the home of the Hara.

According to museum curator Yoko Nakamura, the project involves using a large mirror and prism to collect and project sunlight onto a North-facing screen mounted on the museum's roof.

It is something of an ironic coincidence that the planned installation would end up creating the illusion of sunlight coming from the North, as Nakamura says that "Actually, he wants to deny his Northern roots."

Nevertheless there seems something characteristically Scandinavian about an artist who downplays his national identity and shows a reverence for the element of light -- possibly something to do with those long arctic nights in the winter, or even the long arctic days of summer.

Among the works on display, only one, "Camera Obscura" (1999), directly uses sunlight. This is simply a glass and an acrylic lens in the wall of a darkened room in the museum, with a screen catching the light from the garden outside. Partially out of focus and upside down, the scene presented has the soft, ambiguous look of an Impressionist painting.

The other light works use artificial sources: spotlights, halogen bulbs and, in "Room for One Color and Windy Corner" (1998), monofrequency lights with converters that spread the light so evenly that it eerily seems more like a peculiar shade of wallpaper than a type of radiated energy.

The most effective works use powerful spotlights. "Round Rainbow" (2005) and "Color Space Embracer" (2005), which, like all the installations, take up a room each, use a beam directed onto a slowly moving object, creating mesmerizing effects.

"Round Rainbow" has a slowly rotating acrylic glass ring that acts like a prism, splitting white light into a rainbow that gradually shuffles its colors and arcs on the walls of the gallery. "Color Space Embracer" achieves even more magical effects by passing light through three rotating color-effect filter cylinders that slowly revolve on the same axis, adding colors to the light rather than breaking it up to reveal the spectrum within.

Nakamura notes that much of what is on display is "physics 101."

"Eliasson is a combination of artist and scientist," she says. "When he came here for the opening, he often referred to his studio as his 'lab.' He's not a specialist in math or physics, but he's interested enough in those areas to achieve the effects he wants with some trial and error."

Looking at the rings of light weaving slow hypnotic patterns on the wall, it is easy to see something spiritual, or philosophical, in this art. "Shadow Lamp" (2005) even reminded me of Plato's parable of the cave, where the illusion of physical reality is equated to the appearance of a bent and flickering shadow thrown onto a cave wall.

But again, according to Nakamura, such profound thoughts are not his intention.

"He said people may have religious or mystical responses to his art if they want, but that's not particularly the message. In his view, these are just machines that produce effects."

One of the effects produced by an installation reminded me of nothing so much as the Scottish (or possibly Danish) weather. "Beauty" (1993), uses a plastic pipe with nozzles to create fine, mist-like rain, through which an angled beam of light creates a rainbow that moves as the viewer moves.

This highlights one of Eliasson's main intentions, which is to make viewers aware of how they interact with and perceive the art and the space.

As you walk around the rainbow, Eliasson wants you to start "seeing yourself sensing." This is connected to his interest in the antagonism between nature and culture, since in Eliasson's view all our perceptions of nature are shaped by culture. Consequently, the very idea of "nature" itself has become artificial and manmade -- just like the waterfall and light source in "Beauty."

Eliasson gave a perfect example when he came for the opening, Nakamura recalled. "He said that even Mount Fuji is not natural, because the way we see it is so deeply connected with Japanese culture."

Olafur Eliasson: "Your Light Shadow" is at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, 4-7-25 Kita-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo 140-0001, until Feb. 5, 2006; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m (closed Mondays); adults 1,000 yen, students 700 yen. For more information, call (03) 3445-0651 or visit www.haramuseum.or.jp

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