Inside a flower, gazing at stars

BMA bought magical sculpture without seeing it

Object Lesson

October 10, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

From a distance, it looks like a huge metal flower, or perhaps an elegantly tied silver ribbon.

But step beneath Danish artist Olafur Eliasson's 14-foot-high, stainless steel sculpture and the space above is transformed into a brilliant night sky filled with twinkling points of light.

The light streams through tiny apertures formed where the sculpture's steel "petals" join one another just above the viewer's head. But because the petals have mirrored surfaces, one can't tell how far away the lights are -- or if they're real.

The sensation is disorienting to say the least. (Is this what it feels like to stand inside a giant toy kaleidoscope?)

Welcome to Flower Observatory, one of the Baltimore Museum of Art's newest acquisitions, and surely one of its most magical. Installed in the BMA's New Wing for Contemporary art last summer, the futuristic-looking, one-and-a-half-ton sculpture demands to be not just looked at, but experienced.

What happens beneath the work's crystalline petals is a form of what BMA contemporary art curator Chris Gilbert calls "double consciousness" -- an awareness of both the clever perceptual trick that the piece springs on viewers and of the extremely elegant structure that makes the illusion possible.

Sculptor Eliasson has called the experience "seeing yourself seeing," or "sensing yourself seeing," and it is one of the qualities that first drew the BMA's Gilbert to the work last year.

"You're supposed to experience the perceptual effects on the inside and also be able to step back and take account of what creates those effects, so it's both a machine and a structure," Gilbert said. "And the transition between those two modes is very simple and elegant."

There's no right or wrong way to view Eliasson's work. Many of the artist's sculptures contain the words "you" or "your" in the title to emphasize the viewer's own role in creating the experience that results from the encounter.

"It's something you have to do in the first person," Gilbert said. "One thing it does for me is to disrupt the notion of Cartesian space. When you're underneath it, you can't know what's receding and what's projecting, or even what's flat. It brings one to the realization that perception is not out there but in here, that the world we experience is partly a human creation."

The story of how the BMA came to acquire Eliasson's sculpture is almost as unusual as the work itself.

Gilbert first saw Flower Observatory as a drawing in September 2003 and realized it was related to both a larger sculpture by Eliasson he had seen in Venice and a tunnel-shaped work, Your Spiral View, which he had seen in Switzerland the previous year.

Having admired the artist's sculptures for years, he decided to ask the BMA's acquisitions committee to purchase the work. To his delight, the committee accepted Gilbert's proposal, as did the museum's trustees, solely on the basis of Eliasson's drawing and Gilbert's oral presentation. No one, including Gilbert, really knew what the finished sculpture would look like.

But with the museum's support, Gilbert was able to fly to the artist's studio in Copenhagen and finalize the deal last April. The piece was then taken apart and shipped to the BMA, where it was reassembled and installed in the gallery last summer.

Gilbert said the whole process -- which was also his first curatorial acquisition -- was really quite extraordinary and possibly unique in the BMA's history. "The museum's acquisition committee and board accepted my proposal to acquire the work based on the drawing and my acquainting them with the artist's past work," he said. "The completed work, with its almost crystalline perfection and remarkable effects, exceeded everyone's high expectations."

Object Lesson, which will feature essays, observations or tales focusing on individual objects, will appear occasionally in the Arts & Society section.

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