Olafur Eliasson’s latest show, “the listening dimension,” is an elegant exploration of optics—as sophisticated as it is simple. Optics have been used in art since the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Dutch masters employed convex and concave mirrors (which were sometimes shown in the artworks themselves) to enhance detail and perspective. Vermeer reputedly used a double set of mirrors to paint his hyper-realistic images, and M.C. Escher used a spherical mirror in Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935) to portray not only himself, but also the entire contents of his room.
For Eliasson, the optics themselves are the art. The five components of his two-floor installation require the viewers’ interaction to illustrate principles of vision, creating an experience akin to filling in a coloring book. In a sense, Eliasson enables the viewer to complete the optical phenomena by walking around each of the elements or by turning on a light switch.
Installed at the entrance to the gallery is Rainbow bridge (2017), a piece consisting of what appear to be 12 clear crystal balls, mounted on posts at eye level. But as visitors walk past the silvered glass spheres, each magically turns the colors of the spectrum, from red to yellow to blue, etc. To see how this optical trick works, look at the back of the spheres; each has a central slice of color. The clever combination of the sphere and the viewer’s motion in walking creates a working model of the spectrum.
A similar magical effect is manifested on the second floor, with Color experiment no. 78. A series of flat disks, painted yellow, orange, red, green, blue, indigo, and violet, is mounted on the walls of a small room. At the pull of a string operating a white light bulb, the color of the canvas disks is alternately drained or restored. When the white bulb is turned off, the room is illuminated by a mono-frequency bulb, which makes the disks appear in gradations of yellowish-grey. But when the normal white, full-frequency light is turned on, the human eye can see the disks as they are painted, in the full colors of the spectrum.
Two less-colorful installations produce an equally stunning impact. On the first floor, an installation called the listening dimension consists of huge metal hoops (or what appear to be hoops) placed at disorienting axes, like planetary orbits minus the planets. On closer examination, the hula-hoop-like rings are actually half-hoops, attached to a mirror that completes the image.
Two other installations play with light more than color. On the top floor, there is a single convex mirror, Midnight Sun, with a glowing aura, a subtle reminder of Eliasson’s famous Tate Modern installation, the weather project, (2003). But the showstopper is in the back room, which contains Space resonates regardless of our presence (2017), composed of three Zen-like target images, each projected onto the wall by shining a single light source through a Fresnel lens, the prismatic glass lens typically used in lighthouses. These large-scale concentric images look like luminous spectral takeoffs on a Kenneth Noland or Jasper Johns target painting. Their subtle profundity beautifully illustrates, once again, that vision is the product of perceptual illusion.