Wave Forms

Wave Forms

The Copenhagen-born artist Olafur Eliasson creates complex optical effects with the simplest of means: light, reflection, and our passage through space. In the exhibition Take your time: Olafur Eliasson, on view at MoMA and P.S.1 through June 30, three large-scale installations blur the boundaries between art and architecture, film and design. Room-sized color fields create strange, new social spaces; chromatic events turn light into landscape. At the same time, the artist foregrounds the social nature of seeing. “Olafur’s work destabilizes perception,” said MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci. “It disrupts our visual habits. You become very much aware that you are looking.” Eliasson’s waves of light heighten our awareness of where—and who—we are.

Jeff Byles



1—Room for one colour (1997)

Using monofrequency bulbs more commonly found along highways in Europe, Eliasson achieves uncanny effects with a single gesture. Mounted in custom-built, aluminum-channel fixtures, the 91-watt, Philips Master sodium-vapor lamps emit wavelengths only in the yellow area of the visible spectrum. Yet in the same way that a black-and-white image presents colors as shades of gray, all colors washed in Eliasson’s yellow light—whether a pink sweater or blue jeans—are rendered as monochrome shades between yellow and black. As a secondary effect, because the brain processes fewer visual data in the absence of other colors, we feel we see details more easily—Eliasson calls this “hypervision”—a retinal reaction perceived by viewers in different ways. Some see a flattening of dimensions; others detect greater spatial depth. In either case, a single color proves surprisingly surreal.

Photographed at MoMA in 2008




2—360° room for all colours (2002)

In this striking work, color memory creates a richly charged sense of space. A circular, wood-and-steel enclosure is ringed by a matrix of 525 fluorescent tubes, vertically mounted behind a translucent projection screen. The Osram L58W lamps—175 each of red, green, and blue—cycle through a subtle spectrum of ice blues, yellows, pale lavenders, and lime. As they linger on the screen, each color creates an afterimage in the eye, perceived as that color’s complement: About ten seconds after looking at a deep red, for instance, we see green. As the colors slowly shift, one color’s afterimage is superimposed on the next color in the sequence. “The eye becomes so active, it is almost like a projector itself,” Marcoci explained. To heighten their intensity, red tubes are covered with a red film, while the lamps are mounted about 12 inches from the projection screen, creating a seamless wall of light.

Photographed at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris


3—I only see things when they move (2004)

Prismatic bands of color sweep across four walls in this sly transformation of MoMA’s architecture and design galleries. A bare, tripod-mounted HMI bulb, placed in the center of the room, filters through differently colored panes of dichroic glass. Each pane, which separates visible light into distinct wavelengths, is rotated from above by an independent motor, throwing light not only across the wall but through other panes as well. A black shield, mounted on the top and bottom of the lamp, is adjustable to scale the projection to differently sized rooms. With their varying widths, the panes create light bands stretching from floor to ceiling, suggesting sliding doors, or opening and closing windows—spectrum as structure.

Photographed at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in 2007