Comments/Context: Olafur Eliasson has been making photographs since the mid 1990s, but it's always his perception-altering installations that seem to get all the attention. Happily, in this show of new work, the photographs take the main stage and the installations play a supporting role. Together, they deliver a thoughtful meditation on the relativity of visual scale.
Three large grids of Icelandic landscapes fill the main gallery space, and at first glance, it might be tempting to think they are Becher-like typologies, given their repetitive motifs of volcanoes, hot springs, and huts. But Eliasson's arrangements are much less rigid and systematic; they impose a kind of conceptual order on nature, but the terrain resists such precision. The result are arrangements that are more like maps or inventories, sets of images that subtly play with the relationship between the viewer and the land. The hot springs come in a dizzying array of unspoiled natural colors: shockingly blue, salt encrusted, moss covered, rusty orange, sulfurous yellow, steaming black. But aside from their rough beauty, these holes and depressions are fascinatingly and puzzlingly unscaled: is this image of something two feet or two miles wide? Eliasson's volcanic craters are equally photographically unstable: aerials of mountains and cones in seemingly all sizes, wrapped in snow and grass, filled with pools of liquid, and surrounded by moonscapes of rock and scree, all scaled to the same relative size for the grid. The series of hiking huts introduces a human element to the land, where tiny A-frame buildings are dwarfed by the expanse of the rolling hills, at once hopelessly tenuous and quietly optimistic. In each case, Eliasson's method of presentation mixes the rugged, untamed formations of highlands with a complex, nuanced sense of spatial awareness.
The single image photographs in the back room are printed much larger, but still consider many of the same issues of perception. While a couple have a scale giveaway hidden amid the landscape (a rainbow, a cascading waterfall), nearly all of the photographs are at least superficially uncertain in size: a pool of water surrounded by eroded rock, decorated with a splash of unmelted snow (could be a lake or a puddle); sculpted hills and valleys painted in a palette of dull green and brown (could be an aerial or a tiny slice of ground). All of these landscapes test our ability to discern the "real" scale, forcing the viewer into a different level of heightened engagement with the images. The installations upstairs continue this conceptual discussion, with a room sized pile of broken obsidian that might be visually measured in feet or acres, and splashing fountains of pleasingly aural water that are intermittently stopped mid fall (like a fleeting photograph) by flashing strobe lights.
What I like best about Eliasson's grids and landscapes is their dynamic energy. Even in a natural world as hauntingly beautiful as Iceland, landscape photographs can easily be tired and boring. To combat this, Eliasson has inserted a layer of rigorous, cerebral attention, making the images not so much about the land itself, but about the experience of the land. Of course, these are pictures about walking, and stopping, and looking, and seeing, but they have a vital sense of off-kilter wonder that keeps them fresh and unpredictable.
Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows.The large photographic grids are 135000€ (huts), 145000€ (hot springs), and 175000€ (volcanoes). The single image photographs are 22500€ each. Eliasson's photographs have become increasingly available in the secondary markets for both the Photography and Contemporary Art in recent years. Prices at auction have ranged from as little as a few thousand dollars for one of the single images to upwards of $600000 for the most sought after grids.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
521 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011