If the title of Olafur Eliasson’s solo show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton allows for limitless representative and contemplative interpretations, it also begins by fulfilling a basic human desire: to touch the things that arouse our curiosity. ‘Contact’, his first Paris exhibition since a retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in 2002, immediately establishes a break with traditional museum protocol by inviting people to feel the craggy surface of a meteorite fragment mounted to a wall.
‘Normally, you are not supposed to touch the artwork,’ explained the artist, from one of the many irregularly shaped rooms within Frank Gehry’s instantly iconic building, ‘but when I touched a meteorite, it was the first time I touched something which was not from this planet.’
For the Danish-Icelandic artist, the idea of ‘touching the untouchable’ has informed a series of new projects that place viewers in an immersive orbit where perceptions are challenged in surprisingly simple ways. With ‘Parallax Planet’, the convex curvature of a spherical window outdoors transforms water spurting from an everyday garden hose into a hypnotic, Mobius-type loop.
The show’s namesake piece, ‘Contact’, uses an inclined floor, mirrors and a horizontal amber light to create the sensation of peering out into space from the pole of a planet. Often, it becomes difficult to discern where design ends and illusion begins. Yet Eliasson volunteers the secrets behind his special effects; German black sandpaper, for instance, gives the impression of diamond dust on the walls of ‘Double Infinity’.
The show, curated by the Fondation’s Suzanne Pagé with support from Laurence Bossé, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Claire Staebler, comprises eight works including the rooftop heliostat ‘sun tracker’ that refracts rays onto a polyhedron sculpture suspended near the museum’s entry.
But let’s not forget Eliasson’s site-specific ‘Inside the Horizon’, the 43 illuminated triangular columns staggered out along the museum’s grotto. Eliasson was adamant that he and Gehry share complementary visions. ‘All of my spaces are generally something you can put down to basically two or three geometrical shapes – circle, cone, triangle – unlike Frank’s building, which is all about waves and free forms and unpredictable.’
So then what to make of the concluding piece, ‘Big Bang Fountain'; Eliasson’s water experiment captures the split-second between upward pressure and downward gravitational force, illuminated with a strobe light so that a splash becomes a wondrous cosmic phenomenon. Here, he admits, ‘we see things that are unseeable, that you cannot see’, adding that the water is ‘the sculpture in the show that you can never ever make a mathematical form out of.’
Eliasson, who appeared at the preview wearing a limited Louis Vuitton edition of his ‘Little Sun’ solar-powered lamp (first introduced during his Tate Modern project in 2012 as part of a continuing mission to provide clean, affordable light to communities without electricity) reassured visitors that they need not follow his map detailing the show’s circuit. ‘Maybe getting lost is not so bad after all,’ he offered, especially if it leads to ‘finding yourself again’. A touching sentiment, indeed.