New York, NY, USA

Look into the Box

Art installation by Olafur Eliasson

Paris, France

Back in 2002, when I worked in Paris, I would occasionally get a phone call from the Musée d’Art Moderne. “Olafur’s installation has crashed again,” the person on the other end would say. “Can you help us restart it?” At that point, depending on the seriousness of the problem, I’d either give instructions over the phone or get on the Metro and go over and sort it out.

The installation in question was Olafur Eliasson’s “Look into the Box”, part of his exhibition <i lang=’fr’>“Chaque matin, je me sens different. Chaque soir, je me sens le même”</i>. The Box had been conceived jointly by Olafur and Luc Steels, with the software written by my talented colleague Nicolas Neubauer. For the record, it was not Nicolas’s fault that it crashed periodically. In fact, it might even have been mine: at this point I can no longer remember exactly what went into the software stack that Nicolas’s code sat on, but it’s quite likely that it included some toolkits that I had developed.

A couple of years later, I happened to be in London at the time that Eliasson’s installation “The Weather Project” was occupying the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. As it was explained to me, the Turbine Hall was something of a problem for the curators of the gallery. Constructed literally on an industrial scale, it was difficult to find an artwork large enough to fill it. The first time I visited the Modern, it was simply an empty space.

Eliasson rose to the challenge with The Weather Project and, in my view, succeeded amazingly well. The idea was outwardly simple — an artificial ‘sun’ using monochromatic lights, with some mist and mirrors to create mood and additional perspectives — but the result was entrancing. The reflections and shadows and unfamiliar light created a visual landscape where there was always something new to look at. The final dynamic element was created by the visitors, who interacted with the piece — lying on their backs to look at themselves in the mirrored ceiling, spontaneously organizing themselves into shapes (stars, squares, circles and more) on the floor, or just looking at each other in, quite literally, a new light.

Now Eliasson has a new and still larger project, with four huge artificial ‘waterfalls’ in the East River. Funded by New York’s public art fund, The New York City Waterfalls are scaffolding towers that pump river water up and pour it back down in cascades. One waterfall is on the Manhattan side of the East River, at Pier 35, while two more are on the Brooklyn side, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and at Brooklyn Piers. The fourth is by Governor’s Island.

At this point, The Weather Project remains my favorite of Eliasson’s pieces. While the falling water of the Waterfalls is beautiful enough — the wind feathers the cascades and creates elaborate patterns as the water crashes back into the river — the installations are more remote, and there’s less opportunity for interaction with the piece (unless you count standing under the FDR or on a Circle Line boat and taking pictures). Moreover, in the huge and complex cityscape of New York, the waterfalls don’t really stand out: it would take a much larger tower to dominate the scene, and something of a different order to transform it in the way that The Weather Project transformed the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Still, points for trying, and I can see myself going back to the river to look at the Waterfalls again and try to find new ways to photograph them.

Note: many thanks to Nicolas Neubauer for digging up my photograph of “Look into the Box” and sending it to me after I lost the original.