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There are three reasons to be sceptical about the Harpa concert hall. One is that it is promoted as a “unique” artist-architect collaboration, when such collaborations are quite commonplace and often involve an alliance between architects with too little confidence in their ability to design buildings and an artist with too much. Then it is called “crystalline”, a word usually applied by hack practices to glass boxes with a few wonky angles.

And it is in Iceland, the country that went so spectacularly bust that the British government mobilised anti-terrorism laws to freeze its assets. What business have they, three years after leading the world into the abyss, to be opening a $150m (£90m) building, with four halls for music and conferences, the largest of which has 1,800 seats, in a country of 300,000 people, and in a city the size of Ipswich?

The facade of Harpa is the work of an artist, the Icelandic-Danish Olafur Eliasson, who gets more attention and a higher billing than the hall’s architects, the 52-year-old practice Henning Larsen Architects. They wear sober suits; Eliasson’s leather waistcoat and silver-framed shades suggest creative leadership. His job is to provide that service that would once have been performed by Corinthian columns and statues of buxom nudes: to endow the house of culture with meaning and importance. He has come up with a tilted cliff face made of multiple hexagonal glass tubes, with coloured and mirrored panes inserted here and there. Inside, the hexagons continue, forming a faceted and mirrored ceiling to the foyer.

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Rowan Moore
Guardian

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“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” William Blake once wrote, “everything would appear to man as it is, infinite” — infinitely personal, Mr. Eliasson might add, and infinitely interconnected. His business, above all, is the cleansing of the doors of perception. Visitors to his current show “Take Your Time” (continuing at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through June 30) are discovering immersive environments and sensory-deprivation devices of unfathomable beauty: a rotunda flooded in constantly shifting colors, a gigantic tilted mirror slowly rotating overhead, a cubic meter traced by lamplight in vapor in a darkened gallery. What sense can be made of these Zen mysteries? What do they mean?

In his clinical, uncluttered designs, Mr. Eliasson walks the walk of an experimental physicist; in the thorny Teutonic abstractions he often uses to explain his thinking, he talks the talk of a student of phenomenology. Is he either? “Occasionally one, occasionally the other,” Mr. Eliasson replies. “Relevance arises through context. Sometimes you are looking at pure forms, sometimes at an argument…”

He is exquisitely attuned to nuances of sound and light, which he also recalls with Proustian accuracy. Strolling down by the waterfront, he finds beauty in a mound of road salt deposited under the Manhattan Bridge like sooty slush out of season. Pointing to the sky, he conjures up the trajectory of the sun and gathering darkness in terms that merge drama and epic.

Political theory, ecology and ethics likewise enter the picture. “People like to think that public space is neutral and open to all. Actually, it is subject to commercial interests, to the intentions of power elites. Public space is what’s left when everything else has been privatized. We need to create it, we need to nurture it. I didn’t dump down the waterfalls from the moon. I tried to integrate them with the city in a productive way.”

Matthew Gurewitsch
Wall Street Journal

Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic inventor and engineer of minimalist spectacle, is so much better than anyone else in today’s ranks of crowd-pleasing installational artists that there should be a nice, clean, special word other than “art” for what he does, to set him apart. There won’t be. “Art” has become the promiscuous catchall for anything artificial that meets no practical need but which we like, or are presumed or supposed to like. Still, play with the thought at “Take Your Time,” the Eliasson retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and at MOMA’s affiliate, P.S. 1. By the way, please make the P.S. 1 trek—three stops on the No. 7 train from Grand Central. That part of the show details and deepens a sense of Eliasson’s creative integrity, which may remain slightly in question amid his stunts on West Fifty-third Street: an electric fan swaying on a cord from the ceiling of the atrium, rooms awash in different kinds of peculiarly colored light, a wall of exotic (and odorous) moss, a curtain of falling water optically immobilized by stroboscopic flashes. I had a little epiphany in Queens while looking at Eliasson’s contemplative suites of photographs of Icelandic landscapes, seascapes, glaciers, icebergs, and caves: here’s someone for whom beauty is normal. His character suggests both the mental discipline of a scientist and the emotional responsibility of a poet. If leadership in public-spirited art extravaganzas were a political office—and it sometimes feels as if it were—he’d have my vote.

Peter Schjeldahl
New Yorker

Excerpts from an interview with Spiegel magazine and Olafur Eliasson:

Spiegel: And you are about to embark on your final victory march in America. No one will be able to overlook your four gigantic waterfalls, up to 40 meters (131 feet) high, in the East River.

Eliasson: Well, people who want to see everything will have to travel all the way across the city. We’re installing these waterfalls in very different parts of New York — under the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. The water will generate a true fog everywhere, and the pumps will be very loud. After all, real waterfalls make a lot of noise.

Spiegel: But why does the city need its own Niagara Falls?

Eliasson: I was interested in bringing life to a space that constitutes a non-space in New York, a space that simply doesn’t count. Wall Street is traditionally more important there that the water. In other words, I wanted to draw attention to something that has always been there and yet goes largely unnoticed.

Spiegel: Do you always emphasize strong sensations?

Eliasson: Yes, because physical experience makes a much deeper impression than a purely intellectual encounter. I can explain to you what it’s like to feel cold, but I can also have you feel the cold yourself through my art. My goal is to sensitize people to highly complex questions.

***

Eliasson: Reality is confusing. That’s what I want to demonstrate. There is no fixed interpretation of my works. Everyone experiences and understands them in his own way.

***
Eliasson: Christo is an amazing artist. But the way he exploits his projects and markets them so extremely, that’s not my style.

Spiegel: But you too have crossed the boundary into commercialism. For instance, you designed an “Art Car” for BMW.

Eliasson: Well, I do want to participate in the world, as it is. But look at it more closely: My art isn’t exactly market-friendly. Who buys a rainbow?

Spiegel: Still, do you have the feeling sometimes that you are getting your fingers dirty? Proximity to business is frowned upon in the art world.

Eliasson: This world of art and of museums can also be unbelievably elitist. But it isn’t a parallel world, where the laws of the market are somehow suspended. Artists don’t live in a space apart from politics and the market, and in many cases they even have very good strategies to market themselves. It would be hypocritical to claim otherwise. But believe me, my fingers are clean.

Spiegel: More than two million people went to see your “Weather Project,” a colossal sun sculpture, at the Tate Modern in London four years ago last winter. The minute an artist reaches large numbers of people, he is accused of going mainstream. Is that a problem for you?

Eliasson: Appealing to many people isn’t a problem for me. I don’t happen to be one of those people who climb up on their avant-garde stools and look down on others. We should stop nurturing this naïve cliché that says artists are beings from another planet. It wasn’t God himself who hung art in museums. And yet the museum directors create precisely this detached impression. It would be much more honest to talk about the many connections and influences, because they exist. The market exists, and so do ideologies.

***
Spiegel: Your art, which is in tune with nature, is often associated with your native Scandinavia and its landscape.

Eliasson: Yes, but this relationship should not be understood as a key to my art. The circumstances under which I grew up in Denmark are more important than nature: in a society that was shaped by pseudo-Protestantism, and by the ideals of the middle class and the welfare state. The individual was less important than the community. Recognizing this, identifying it as a source of tension, has influenced me. Besides, it is also typically Scandinavian to think: I am nothing, and nature is everything. Of course, I too had this attitude. My parents are Icelanders, and Iceland, which I visited regularly as a child, is a unique natural experience.

Spiegel

olafur.jpg
Courtesy of Amy C. Elliott/Public Art fund

For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.

Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.

Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.

There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.

“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.

Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”

For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.

In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.

“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.

Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.

“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.

“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.

The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”

But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.

“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”

Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.

Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”

One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”

Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor

eliassonw.jpg
Illustration courtesy of The New York Sun

Olafur Eliasson, a Danish–Icelandic artist whose installation “The Weather Project” drew 2 million people to the Tate Modern in 2003 and 2004, has designed what will likely be the city’s biggest public art project since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates”: a series of freestanding waterfalls in the East River.

Mayor Bloomberg and the Public Art Fund, a private nonprofit organization that produced, among other works, Anish Kapoor’s “Sky Mirror” and Jeff Koons’s “Puppy,” both at Rockefeller Center, are scheduled to announce Mr. Eliasson’s project at the South Street Seaport tomorrow.

Kate Taylor
The New York Sun

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