It’s OK if you don’t understand Olafur Eliasson’s new show
The artist may be referencing the environment in Beijing, but the show’s title suggests it's all open to interpretation
Olafur Eliasson’s current solo exhibition at the at the Red Brick Art Musuem in Beijing, doesn't deliver one, simple, message.
It’s title, The Unspeakable Openness of Things, isn’t a Milan Kundera misquote, but actually a line from Olafur’s friend, the philosopher Timothy Morton. Morton’s words, as Olafur puts it, describe how “art exists both in and beyond the realm of language. Before the form of an artwork emerges, there’s a not-quite-graspable feeling that flows into the artistic process – and that remains in the finished work as something that cannot be fully expressed. At the same time, the artwork is fundamentally open to visitors. It is ready to listen to them, and able to host their questions and experiences.”
Some have seen the huge, orange, centrepiece light installation, also called The Unspeakable Openness of Things and referenced the orange air-pollution alert issued by Beijing’s authorities earlier this year – the second highest possible.
Admittedly, environmental concerns figure prominently in Eliasson’s art; there are watercolours on display made by melting chunks of glacier ice. However, one, simple ecological reading seems to go against the spirit of the show, which includes mist and water pieces, compass sculptures, and outdoor pavilions. They all fool around with light and colour, perception and illusion.
As Michelle Kuo puts it in our new book, Olafur Eliasson: Experience, the artist knows “our togetherness, our intertwinement with people and things and places, is never seamless or whole, never complete. This might explain the strangeness that erupts when you make contact with one of Eliasson’s works – when you touch a wall of moss, or see a false shadow, or feel an odd and inexplicable mist.
"You might see something, but you’re not quite sure what it is or what it means’” Kuo explains, “Rather than casting art as a transcendent and static totality – a picture or statue that remained the same regardless of who looked at it or where it was – the concept of empathy placed newfound emphasis on the mind and body of the viewer. It highlighted the act of perceiving in shaping, even creating, the work of art.”
For more on these works, their maker and the audience’s reaction, order a copy of Olafur Eliasson: Experience here.