Olafur Eliasson Exhibit

Over the weekend, I decided to visit the Olafur Eliasson exhibit (Take Your Time) on its last day at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. It turned out to be a compelling synthesis of experience design principles.

Eliasson nimbly merges art, science, and natural phenomena to create extraordinary multisensory experiences. Challenging the passive nature of traditional art-viewing, he engages the observer as an active participant, using tangible elements such as temperature, moisture, aroma, and light to generate physical sensations.

At first, I slowly made my way through the packed exhibition space, basking in the sensations. Then I stepped back and looked at the artwork from an experience design perspective.

Eliasson starts by initiating the viewer into the experience through a One-way Colour Tunnel that resembles stained glass. There’s a fairly standard collection of models, sketches and conceptual work on the other side, followed by an exhibit that manipulates light in a way that is interesting, but fits fairly easily into the frame of what “modern art” can be.

Then Eliasson turns the world upside-down, with Room for One Colour bathing the viewer in a spectrum of light that induces a sensation of color blindness. As it dawned on me that my perception was being manipulated — that I was literally seeing other people in black and white — it inspired a giddy sense of wonder that made me smile.

Many of Eliasson’s works focus on a manipulation of vision with mirrors, color and light. His 360° Room for All Colors was fascinating. Just a simple round room with white translucent walls that gradually shift color over the entire spectrum. It creates a peaceful feeling of depth. Of infinity.

By far the most immersive and multisensory of the exhibits was also one of the oldest. Beauty, from 1993, consists of a thin sheen of mist falling from the ceiling in a darkened room, illuminated by a single light. It stimulates every sense except for taste (which none of the exhibits addressed).

Touch – Before even entering the room, the air feels cool and damp, like a cave, and the walls are a rough, faceted rock texture that practically begs to be touched.

Smell – The air smells rich, and slightly musty. Again, like a cave.

Sight – The curtain of mist looks different depending on the angle of view, refracting a peaceful rainbow from one perspective and becoming a brilliant spectacle when backlit.

Sound – An awareness of silence fills the exhibit as people stop talking and contemplate the mist against a barely detectable hiss of white noise from the nozzle. (This silence was heightened by its juxtaposition against the conspicuous squeak of a wood floor in an adjacent exhibit).

A few brave souls darted through the mist, feeling it on their faces and outstretched fingertips. This struck me as magnificent. The sense of touch is generally prohibited in museums, but here was an exhibit that actually encouraged active tactile exploration. Each group seemed initially unsure whether they could interact in this way, but eventually an explorer would venture forward and reach out their hand.

The fact that the artwork so skillfully addressed four of the senses made the lack of taste (literally, not figuratively) all the more evident. It’d be interesting to consider possibilities for how that might be accomplished.

Upon exiting the exhibition space, the viewer is again forced to pass through the stained glass tunnel (control is an overriding feature of the exhibition). It was only then that I realized the stained glass was black from the reverse perspective. The contrast was a surprising revelation, and created a memorable bookend to the overall experience.

Update: Here’s a less charitable analysis of Eliasson’s work as faux-phenomenology.

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