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Going to Iceland

Yes, Olafur Eliasson takes pictures there, but don't make too much of it

With its volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields and geysers, Iceland has always made for a fantastic, dramatic setting. But artist Olafur Eliasson doesn't photograph the country because it's exotic; he photographs it because it's convenient. With Iceland's "outstanding nature," Eliasson explains, he can "walk 20 minutes and the landscape will be completely different." Roughly the size of Virginia, the country's vast but concentrated range of geographic and geologic diversity is perfect for Eliasson's artwork. Lest you get the wrong idea, "Olafur Eliasson: Photographs," a new exhibition at the Menil Collection curated by Matthew Drutt, isn't some collection of scenic travel images à la National Geographic.

Eliasson presents a world with a quietly powerful, contemplative and fascinating beauty. He groups his photographs in grids, creating series of images. Eliasson records his movements through landscapes -- over a trail, down a river. He also creates what are essentially portraits of the natural and man-made phenomena he explores: chunks of intensely blue glacial ice, boulders, broken stones, bridges, lighthouses. Portraits of rocks may soundboring as hell, but his carefully examined presentation makes them fascinating. Nature's incredible variety is a patently obvious concept, but Eliasson explores it without heavy-handedness. You go through the same process of discovery he did in taking his pictures, editing them and grouping them together.

Eliasson was born in Denmark, but his parents are from Iceland and he returned often as a child. He still spends several months a year there. Speaking with him, you get the sense that he's really sick of everybody focusing on the whole Iceland thing. He thinks biography gets overemphasized with artists, and he's right. Although the photos in this exhibition were shot in Iceland, the show is about not the place but the images. Eliasson points out that he could be making his photographs in Texas, but that it would just be tougher because the distances between different landscapes are longer. "Similar or related phenomena are to be found everywhere in the world," he says. Iceland just happens to offer one-stop shopping.

Portrait of a lighthouse: 20 structures were 
photographed for The lighthouse series (1999).
Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Portrait of a lighthouse: 20 structures were photographed for The lighthouse series (1999).

But if he did shoot photographs in Texas, Eliasson would approach our landscape through his own sensibility. That sensibility -- the word "sublime" crops up a lot when people talk about his work -- would be different if it were shaped in, say, Texas City. Geography does affect people and their cultures. Why is the north of a country different from the south, the shore different from the interior? I may be committing the sin of extrapolating from biographical detail, but growing up exposed to an environment as spectacular as Iceland's has to have attuned Eliasson to the dramatic visual potential of the natural world.

Eliasson is just coming off The Weather Project, his hugely acclaimed installation at the Tate Modern in London. Researching the project, he became enamored with the idea of weather and the British predilection for discussing it. In the cavernous Turbine Hall, he created a spectacular glowing sun, clouds of mist and a mirrored ceiling. People took to lying on their backs in the hall, basking in the otherworldly glow of the fake sun and staring up at their reflections in the ceiling. It was so successful the Tate Modern offered to extend the show. He could have had a long-running visual-arts equivalent to Cats, but Eliasson wisely declined.

Eliasson's photographs lack the theatrical impact of his installations, but he's exploring similar ideas, albeit through different media. Eliasson says his work is about people -- an assertion that's obvious in his installations but less so in his largely unpopulated photographs. But the photo series are about the artist moving through the landscape and sharing his experience with the viewer, which is similar to the way his installations construct an environment to be experienced.

The path series (1999), a grid of 24 photographs, depicts lush green grass worn away to reveal rich, dark earth, footsteps embossed in a line in the snow, and a trail burnished into a desolate stony field. It's a record of different landscapes and a document of the artist's walk through his environment. And what a strange environment it is. In The moss valley series (2002), a grid of 16 large photographs records sections of rocky, moss-covered earth. The undulating carpets of dull green look like NASA shots from an alien landscape. They're beautiful and just a little bit creepy.

For The horizon series (2002), elongated panorama prints show flat horizon lines interspersed with the occasional mountain. There are prairies, mossy expanses, lava fields and rocky deserts, and all their horizon lines, well, line up. From a distance they look like abstract linear bands of color. The bridge series (1994-95) doesn't have elegant horizontal regularity. Instead, it isolates segments of landscape and the different ways man has devised to connect sections of earth. It's like a scenic civil engineering scrapbook, with everything from small simple wooden platforms to elaborate suspension bridges. For Eliasson, it is "both a travel document and a series of landscape photos."

Eliasson's work is at its best when parameters are more closely defined. The landscape series (1997) has some lovely images, but the scenic shots aren't as compelling because they're not as specific as his other investigations. And the selections of photographs from the Iceland series (1998-2001) are the least satisfying. Its images cover a range of subject matter: a rock, a rainbow, a lake, a stretch of highway. They're nice images, but the random selection doesn't have the same cumulative, contemplative power as most of the other series. Iceland also lacks the formal repetition found in works like The fault series (2001), which contains 32 vertical shots of deep cracks in the earth's crust. (The faults, like his collection of cave orifices, also have something vaguely sexual going on.)

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