Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Terrified at the Arsenale

I have been moved, puzzled, bewildered, and awed by works of art. Until last week, I had never been terrified by a work of art. Imagine a pitch black gallery, light from the gallery leading into it illuminates the eight large columns that run down the center in pairs. Jumping, switching, writhing electric wires snap and crackle between them. It’s mesmerizing and terrifying. Those are live wires. How can you have live wires in an art installation?

At the end of the gallery was a tiny, backlit doorway. There were more galleries to see, but I couldn’t tell how much I actually wanted to see them if it meant walking next to the wires. So, I simply stood and looked some more, forcing my rising panic down. Upon closer examination, the light I thought was coming from the wires was coming from strobe lights mounted on top of the columns. I slowly started to edge my way along the gallery wall and as I did my feet squelched. The floor was damp. Where on earth did this water come from? The wires weren’t wires at all. They were hoses. The snapping and crackling sounds I heard were water hitting the rubber floor. The strobe lights reflecting off the water created the electric effect.

I was relieved and chastened and I hated the piece. I felt manipulated and silly. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it over the next few days and when people asked me about impressions of the Arsenale, I always returned to that piece and shared my chagrin about being duped. I’ve actually come to appreciate the piece and admire its cleverness and ability to play on my expectations. Only after reading reviews of the Venice Architecture Biennale did I realize the piece was titled Split Second House and it was created by Olafur Eliasson. If I had known the artist I might not have been so shaken when first viewing the work, Eliasson’s obsession with water is well known. But then, I might not have had such a pure reaction.

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