With its stark beauty, raw geologic power and captivating natural phenomena, Iceland has long been both subject and muse for Olafur Eliasson, whose parents are Icelandic, although he was born and raised in Copenhagen. Featuring 172 color photographs of the Icelandic landscape, three fountain sculptures dizzyingly illuminated by strobe lights and an ample floor piece made of obsidian, Eliasson’s exhibition opened on a Thursday. Four days later, nature intervened in a big way, when Superstorm Sandy struck. Floodwaters surged into the gallery, uprooted the front desk and ruined the computers; fortunately, Eliasson’s works were spared. After heroic efforts, the gallery reopened 13 days later. While New York was staggered by the power of nature, in Iceland erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, fierce winds and avalanches are commonplace.
On the first floor were three gridded installations of photographs (all 2012). The largest is “The volcano series,” 63 C-prints (each around 16 by 24 inches) that present a visual lexicon of types of volcanoes. As you stand before this looming work, your gaze restlessly darting to and fro, a complex interplay develops between parts and whole. You note the differentiating details: red lava swirling down one volcano’s slopes; blue and green water surrounding an island volcano; a small volcano so black, craggy and weird that it could be on an alien planet; volcanoes delicately mottled with snow or green moss. Eliasson varied range and camera angles, so that some of the mountains seem quite close while others are distant, and the static installation seems to be in flux. Abundant colors and almost abstract shapes are also downright painterly: a landscape composed by the artist as well as by nature.
“The hot spring series” comprises 48 somewhat smaller (around 12-by-17-inch) photographs of vents, holes, craters and pools. Some are astonishingly colorful: a reddish-orange pool seems to come straight from science fiction, or to have been invented in Photoshop. Several modest hot springs marked by mineral colors look deceptively immense, as big as the volcanoes; others close to the camera seem miles away. Eliasson excels at manipulating perception and cognition; you’re not sure exactly what you’re seeing. “The hut series” concerns remote public shelters in vivid hues—an A-frame’s bright blue roof, a red and gold shack—that contrast with the muted landscape. These austere yet colorful huts are charming, and they can save people threatened by dangerously unpredictable weather. They also look both stubborn and precarious, overwhelmed by the landscape but somehow making do. Eliasson’s photographs deal in information and facts, but they are also enthralling, conjuring encounters with a nature that is both wondrous and scary. Such sublimity is especially apparent in five bigger photographs from “The large Iceland series,” featuring chromatic mountains, moss-covered lava fields and a cascading waterfall.
Upstairs were the strobe-lit fountain sculptures (all 2009), along with the showstopper, Your disappearing garden (2011), a thick, jagged carpet of jet-black Icelandic obsidian. At once sleek and rugged, alluring and foreboding, Eliasson’s indoor version of an awe-inspiring lava field is a marvel of complex visual stimuli. Obsidian, a natural glass that forms when hot lava is submerged in water, is highly reflective. Gazing at this mirrored black sculpture born from whopping geologic forces, you respond to the constantly shifting spectacle playing over its uneven surfaces: flecks of color from the overhead lights, your reflected image, other viewers. This work transports you deep into Iceland even as your attention is riveted by its many optical effects.
Photo: Olafur Eliasson: “The hot spring series,” 2012, 48 framed C-prints, each 111⁄2 by 17 inches; at Tanya Bonakdar.