Olafur Eliasson’s Reality Projector at the Marciano Art Foundation 

Olafur Eliasson’s “Reality Projector at Marciano Art Foundation. Photo credit: Lawrence Gipe.

Olafur Eliasson’s “Reality Projector” and other works at the Marciano Art Foundation

Through August 26

By Lawrence Gipe

After all these years, is it fair to ask if “site-specific” art has gotten a little stale? In the 1970’s, it was cutting-edge: the notion of the “expanded field” (often expressed through the burgeoning environmental art movement) extracted the static art object out of the museum and thrust it into the real world. Artists like Robert Irwin and Alice Aycock, to name but a few, responded to the topography of a given site; there they invented a new and seemingly boundless genre of sculptural practice that offered audiences the ability to view both the context, and the object, in a completely different conceptual light. Later, in the early 1990’s, political artists like Fred Wilson “mined the museum” for artifacts in another brand of site-specificity; he ruthlessly interrogated the historical objects found in museum archives, to make installations that turned the institution inside out, revealing the tawdry, racist foundations on which it was built.  

Now we’re decades on – with many Documentas and Biennales under the bridge. It seems appropriate to ask whether this idea of interacting with a specific location has lost its provocative value. Today, curators continue to routinely employ this tactic – it’s basically the stock and trade of the international blockbuster show. It’s certainly no “shock of the new” to see an artist creating work that is dependent on a backstory, one based on the political environment of the institution, city, or landscape. Artists choosing to make more “autonomous” work, not tethered to the context in which it’s shown, are mainly excluded.  

All this said, Olafur Eliasson has a track record of transcending the contemporary pack, by dint of his innovative imagination (and with the helpful assistance of multi-million dollar budgets.) One of the most successful pieces in this vein, “The Weather Project”, took over the great hall of the Tate Modern 15 years ago in 2003. Art critic Brian O’Doherty , interviewed in Frieze that year, memorably remarked that it was “the first time I’ve seen the enormously dismal space—like a coffin for a giant—socialized in an effective way.” The ceiling of the hall was converted into a huge mirror, and (in a manner similar to Anish Kapoor’s “Bean” sculpture in downtown Chicago) the interface with the public was immediate, narcissistically selfie-stimulating, and, in its spectacular way, enduring in the memory.

Unfortunately, Eliasson’s latest installation at the Marciano Art Foundation, called “Reality Projector”, delivers very little in the way of even a memorable afternoon. Problem one is the nagging misstep that installation artists make: assuming that a soundtrack will heighten or mitigate an otherwise underwhelming experience. Here, Eliasson collaborates with a composer to fashion what can only be termed “the usual” – a pseudo-haunting, reverb-heavy sonic fabric of thuds and clanks that pretends to drench the room with a sense of portentous doom. We are, after all, watching patterns on the wall. This ever-shifting (but not entirely fascinating) light-work is produced by two, high-intensity stage lights on tracks that beam through colored gels arranged in the trusses that line the ceiling of a former theater in the Marciano. Eliasson allows this optic system to operate without any mystery, begging the instantaneous question: “Is that it?” It is, indeed. Although the resonance of the piece accrues slightly as one tromps around the space, and the natural mixing of colors that occurs as the light travels past different filters is interesting, “Reality Projector” seems like Much Ado About Nothing – a disappointing west coast outing for this often transformative artist.  

A concurrent project upstairs at the Marciano offers another brand of site-specificity, albeit much less literal than “Reality Projector”. In the Marciano’s Lounge Gallery the work of two German painters, Albert Oehlen and Peppi Bottrop, are displayed in a collaborative installation called “Line Packers”. Like Eliasson, Bottrop was invited to make works in reaction to the architecture of the gallery (there is nothing intriguing about this particular gallery’s structure except a window, but rules are rules.) Albert Oehlen is arguably one of the best painters of the past 30 years, and has admirably balanced a mainstream career with adventurous chops. Even in the dreariest of art fairs he hits home runs, with epic canvasses that threaten to burst out of the booth. But, in “Line Packers”, Oehlen seems content to bunt; while his connection and rapport with Bottrop seems unforced, the final result on view is a clunky, and curiously sterile, pas-de-deux.       

Bottrop starts with a promising premise, mooring the work within the context of his birthplace in the industrial Ruhr Valley of Western Germany. He uses charcoal as the media of choice, with the intent of connecting this material conceptually to coal – the substance that has historically fueled the region’s steel trade. While none of these details could possibly be gleaned without text to fill us in, the backstory is sound enough. How this information is manifested visually is the problem; Bottrop’s style is un-ironically “expressionistic” in the Twombly mode, and the results feel dated and familiar. Oehlen’s contributions are a tad passé as well. His “Computer Drawings” (1992-2008) are mounted on top of Bottrop’s gestural background. According to the PR, these are historically significant works, to the point of re-defining painting itself. The verbiage released on the website, painful though it may be, is worth citing in full:

“Oehlen’s Computer Paintings, which will be affixed to Bottrop’s walls, made between 1992 and 2008, exemplify Oehlen’s pioneering role as one of the first contemporary painters to explore the nascent capabilities and limits of drawing and line-making through the use of a now-rudimentary Texas Instruments computer. The wall-drawings and supports by Bottrop juxtaposed with Oehlen’s Computer Paintings suggest new possibilities for the line in painting. This line, embedded materially into the…walls, offers a proposition for the medium of painting to re-define itself. The two autonomous, yet mutually-dependent works establish a place of intensive communication and self-exploration, supporting one another in this single, temporary unification that looks to Wilshire Blvd. and Los Angeles, a city that is just as easily defined by its own lines of interstate and highway infrastructure.”  While this text doesn’t set a new world record for obfuscating art-speak, the wild-eyed, hyperbolic delivery only serves to burden the piece with unrealistic expectations. The accompanying essay, which reads like a victim of “Google Translate”, only muddies the waters further.

Regarded together, these two installations at the Marciano make a good case for artists making work outside of the institution. It may be harder to make a living that way, but art that arrives DOA isn’t authentic, or elucidating.

Marciano Art Foundation
4357 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90010
marcianoartfoundation.org