Architects often claim that great architecture is created through a design process that addresses buildings and spaces from the inside out and the outside in. What can we learn about these two divergent ways of critical seeing by considering two recent installations by renowned artists working in the context of both the museum and the city? Provocative works of art teach important lessons about our perceptions of time and place, our world, and ourselves. Observation and analysis of the diverse ways two contemporary artists manipulate similar palettes – space, enclosure, light and color – to create diametrically opposite, immersive, spectacular works, can provide useful insights into our own art.
The similarities and differences between James Turrell’s “Aten Reign” (Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 2013) and Ólafur Elíasson’s “Your Rainbow Panorama” (ARoS, Aarhus, Denmark, 2011) are appreciable. In the sublime “Aten Reign,” Turrell built a largely opaque, telescoping, tiered and layered oval space within Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum’s spiral atrium, imperceptibly top lit by the museum’s temporarily concealed skylight. Within the constructed reality of the space a virtual spectrum of subtly changing colors—pale pinks, blues, mauves, oranges, even grays—morph and dissolve in silence. The visitor either sits “on edge” of a built-in circular bench at the space’s perimeter, or lies head-to-head within the space on a communal round carpet at the center of the “dome,” feet outstretched, gazing upward at the light show above. The only two reminders of the Guggenheim’s iconic architecture is the darkened compressive ground-level entry to “Aten Reign” and the initial section of the museum’s spiral ramp that leads upward, affording a dramatic panorama of the enthralled people below as one ascends up and out of “Aten Reign’s” ever-changing aura.
By contrast Elíasson’s “Your Rainbow Panorama” sits atop ARoS, a cubic brick art museum occupying an important civic site in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. “Rainbow” is a prominently visible, occupiable circular walkway whose multicolored glass walls and dynamic shape form a landmark within the city’s skyline. You approach and enter Elíasson’s piece via procession, including an elevator ride to the roof, the traversal of a generous open roof terrace with 270 degree views of the city, and an ascent on one of two industrial stairways that lead up into the rainbow ring. Within the multicolored glass enclosure, the viewer can walk the circle and revisit the earlier city views, now utterly transformed by the rainbow effects of the colored glass. From inside, the once-blue sky turns bright pink, deep green, metallic blue, hot orange; the streets, trees and brick buildings below are drained of their color or suddenly chrome yellow. Since “Your Rainbow Panorama” is double-sided, the combination of the colorful enclosing walls and the vistas ahead create astonishing effects and startling reflections on both the floor and the reflective glass walls. Interestingly, the sky, a constant visual reference, becomes as mutable as Turrell’s oval dome.
Both works use light, color, planes, and space as their media, and are immersive transformations of perception but to different ends: one is totally internal, the other largely external; one is subtle and fugitive, the other is fixed and explicit. “Aten Reign” is magical and mysterious while “Your Rainbow Panorama” is comprehensible and accessible; “Reign” is about looking in, across, and up, while “Rainbow” is oriented out, across, and down. Turrell’s work is hidden, buried within an iconic building separated from the commercial world-city, while Eliasson’s is explicitly “on display,” a super scale rainbow ring that seems to have mysteriously landed on top of a mute brick art museum at the center of a vibrant small city.
Their names alone speak to their profound differences. The Turrell is named after Aten, the ancient Egyptian sun god with the added notion of “reign,” eternal, imperial, mythic, beyond the reach of mere mortals. By contrast Elíasson chose “rainbow,” the familiar fleeting celestial phenomenon that everyone knows is caused by the momentary conjugation of sun and rain. He then paired his rainbow with the instructive and explicit notion of “panorama,” democratically welcoming the public through the inviting “your” at the very beginning.
Despite these differences, in both works visitors are wonderfully on stage. In Turrell’s “Aten Reign,” the viewers see one another at all times, aware of the company with whom they are sharing the space. As the colors change silently, people move in and out, their garments momentarily phosphorescing in the colored light pouring down from the veiled skylight above. You cannot see faces but their presence is profoundly felt–a person in an orange dress suddenly takes center stage, eclipsed moments later by someone’s turquoise purse or lime green shoelaces. In “Your Rainbow Panorama,” visitors are visible animators as they perambulate around as observed from the squares and streets in the town below. Inside, as they move through the circle, iPhones in hand, they are reflected in the enclosing walls, transformed into colored silhouettes overlaid onto the cityscape beyond.
For me, these two brilliant, realized works ultimately are about the very values at the center of architectural practice: making beautiful and meaningful frameworks for community, human experience, and interaction. Both of these projects in situ are explicit reminders of the tools architects have at their disposal – space and color, transparency and opacity, movement and stasis, aspect and prospect – to shape our everyday environments and create ennobling and memorable places for people.