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Olafur Eliasson

Take Your Time and Your Tempo

Housed in an 800-square-foot custom made cooling unit in the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design gallery, Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s exhibit features, among other sleek and alarming artifacts and structures, a frozen BMW. Called the "BMW H2R", the stripped-down car frame is fitted with Eliasson’s specially made steel-mesh and reflective skin and has been doused in 260 gallons of water, static now as a patterned hunk of ice allowing a few glimpses of the vehicle here and there to show through.

The vehicle is lit from within, imbuing it with an ethereal glow, and the sub-zero temperatured meat-locker it’s shown in is filled with air that -- like the car -- isn’t moving anywhere fast. “It’s an experiment, really, as much a social and political intervention as an aesthetic one,” says co-curator Henry Urbach. “One can hardly imagine a better place to exhibit this work than SFMOMA, situated in the heart of a region where driving and environmental politics claim such a strong, yet contradictory hold on our imagination.”

The ice-encased BMW is, in fact, emblematic of Eliasson’s San Francisco -- and indeed United States -- debut. At the age of forty, this Icelander quietly climbed the backstairs but has now burst out boldly onto the international art stage. His work’s been shown in Italy, at The Tate Modern in London and throughout Germany where he resides presently. Encapsulating fifteen years worth of Eliasson’s career, "Take Your Time and Your Tempo" includes site-specific installation, photography, sculpture, architectural and design feats, as well as video footage sprinkled throughout detailing the artists’ ideas and process. All of his work boils down, perhaps, to this: heightening the multi-dimensional experience of the viewer. In the artist’s words, “I see potential in the spectator -- in the receiver, the reader, the participator, the viewer, the user.”

Radical, but not new: author and researcher of the obscure Paul Collins notes in his book Banvard’s Folly that American artist John Banvard became “the first millionaire artist in history” with his moving panorama paintings of the Mississippi. Banvard’s massive panoramas trundled past astounded audiences around the states, involving them in a kind of gallery experience largely unknown.

The public’s appetite for this interactiveness proved ferocious. Though Banvard disappeared into oblivion and died in poverty, his was an idea that had already begun blossoming years earlier in Europe. Eliasson, like Banvard and Mitchell before him is, in the words of co-curator Madeleine Grynsztejn of the SFMOMA show, “playing with an architectural form belonging to an early genre of spectacular display.”

Using gallery space and custom-made constructions to put on display the spectacular -- or the spectacle -- has grown exponentially easier with modern technology, and it is this that Eliasson exploits to breathtaking effect. Creating interactive environments with light, sound, humidity, temperature, or by positioning the viewer in various odd parts of the gallery -- from a catwalk, say -- Eliasson enables a kind of participation-in-the-art that chimes a chord in a culture obsessed with commodifying participatory experiences.

Eliasson’s exhibit, therefore, stands at the cutting edge of contemporary art. It’s sleek, sexy and, of course, quite alarming at times, suggesting the consequences, via the iced BMW for instance, of our pathological drive to drive. So please, seems to implore, slow down. Take your time.

“Take Your Time and Your Tempo”
at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, (151 Third Street)
Runs through Sun, Feb 24, 2008
Admission: Adults $12.50, Seniors $8.00, Students $7.00, first Tuesday of the month: Free.