The staging of Perception

Olafur Eliasson and Tree of Codes — By Matthieu Poirier

Olafur Eliasson, artiste dano-islandais à la réputation internationale, signait en 2017 sa première collaboration avec le chorégraphe Wayne McGregor en créant pour le ballet Tree of Codes un décor déjouant perspective et perception. Retour sur le travail d’un artiste total.    

From the very first minutes of the performance, the artist’s conception of the scenography is clearly perceptible: in a space plunged into total obscurity, the dancers evolving on stage are equipped with luminous white dots placed over their joints, reminiscent of the white stripes that the doctor and physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey sewed onto black leotards, (they also moved against a black background) with the aim of analysing the structure of movement. His “chronophotographic” images, as they were called, were to serve as references, around 1912, the period at which abstract art was born, both for Marcel Duchamp in his Nu descendant l’escalier no 2 and for the futurist Giacomo Balla and his vibrant Compenetrazioni iridescenti. Beginning Tree of Codes in this way illustrates Eliasson’s structuralist thinking. This abstraction – one could almost say extraction – of the natural appearance of the dancers, dressed in primary colours, gives rise to an agitated and luminous nebulousness. In the same way, the dancers' bodies which become clearly visible as the performance continues and the stage lighting illuminates them, are seen in a mise en abime, multiplied in space by a series of reflections.

In this vast modernist project of decompartmentalizing the Fine Arts and opening them up to the real time and space of perception, Eliasson’s proposition is not so much to give birth to an object or an image but to explore the instability and inconstancy of our perception. Indeed, the framework established by the artist is that of free choreography, not really based on text. Eliasson’s adaptation to the logic of a dance production was primordial. For the bodies concerned here are no longer those of visitors to one of his exhibitions, but of professionals executing a precisely orchestrated choreography. However, and this is a detail of considerable importance, audiences to Tree of Codes, whilst sitting comfortably in their seats, find their attention, in the course of the performance, directed in an erratic manner by a spotlight which then projects their image onto the back of the stage, creating the fleeting impression that they are situated there. “My work is based on the involvement of the audience” when “there is an inversion of the subject and the object,” explains the artist, “ the spectator becomes the object, the environment becomes the subject.” Eliasson questions spatial parameters, the limits of the pre-existing stage. In the same way, he does not dismiss Bertolt Brecht’s idea of “ shattering the theatrical illusion” in as far as one of the essential tools of the scenography of Tree of Codes is undisguised illusion, produced by lighting effects and the use of one-way mirrors. The illusion is therefore explicit; it makes no attempt to disguise itself and is thus absolved of any intention to manipulate.

Tree of Codes
Tree of Codes © Ravi Deepres

Although sober, the scenic space conceived by the artist proves to be intrinsically disjointed and fragmented, at least as it is represented on the retina

once projected by the material object. Defying all spatio-visual limitations, it is reminiscent of the works of Swiss artist Christian Megert, as well as his manifesto Ein Neuer Raum (1962), in which he stated his desire to construct, with the aid of angled, mobile and dislocated mirrors, one-way mirrors and neon lights, a “space with neither beginning, nor end, nor boundaries” which would be simultaneously “immobile and in movement”. Similarly, the stage structure is not the result of any high-tech procedure, and all Eliasson’s mirrors, which render the spatial position of the dancers constantly uncertain, are for the most part able to pivot on their own axes. They are sectioned into half-circles or radii and reflect rays of light sporadically from their various meeting points. This successive “sectioning” of the performance space has considerable impact on the spatio-temporal unity of the work and on the thresholds of perception; tangible reality, such as it is presented here, constantly oscillates between proximity and distance, plenitude and vacuity, transparency and opacity – such a procedure proving so much the more significant in that it resonates with the initial act of the author of the book Tree of Codes: Jonathan Safran Foer fashioned his own text in the same way, cutting up the pages of Bruno Schulz’s book, The Street of Crocodiles. Eliminating entire sentences, Foer brought new ones into being, in a complex interplay of correspondences, of transparency and opacity, between both the narrative structures and the physical lay-out of the different pages.

Tree of Codes
Tree of Codes © Joe Chester Fildes
For Tree of Codes, Eliasson takes up the idea that the most radical form of abstraction, that is to say, that which clearly breaks away from pictorial image, has sometimes been conceived by artists and their patrons as a veritable backdrop, or, in other words, as a decorative background – summoning up the human figure (painted or sculpted), that central image of so-called figurative painting. For if the latter has naturally been excluded from abstract art, it re-emerges in the living form of the spectator or dancer, both of whom are challenged in the habitual exercise of perception. Such a scenographic realisation fully reflects Eliasson’s singular preoccupations and thus pursues (because “one creates nothing, one only pursues”, as Henri Matisse reminds us) a particular type of abstraction that enjoyed considerable development during the 60s and 70s in a movement known as Cinétisme, optical art or perceptual art. This aesthetic sensibility, founded on participation and phenomenology, found its most striking expression in the work of certain artists, whose influence Eliasson has many times laid claim to, like Jesús Rafael Soto, Heinz Mack, Julio Le Parc, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Francisco Sobrino, François Morellet and Christian Megert. Having themselves drawn on constructivism, the teachings of the Bauhaus, cognitive science and information theory, and collaborated with stage directors and choreographers, they have given birth to veritable machines of vision, as receptive and reactive as the spectator himself, providing, of course, that the latter consents to step through the looking-glass.    

Matthieu Poirier est historien de l’art. Il a écrit sa thèse de doctorat sur l’art optique et cinétique (Université Paris-Sorbonne). Il fut à ce titre commissaire de l’exposition « Dynamo » aux Galeries nationales du Grand Palais en 2013.

Your reading: The staging of Perception

Other articles of the theme