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I Am a Rock, I Am an Island 

click to enlarge Olafur Eliasson’s The parliament of reality, an installation at Bard College.
  • Olafur Eliasson’s The parliament of reality, an installation at Bard College.

Artist Olafur Eliasson is interested in what happens when you bring people together. His work is intensely collaborative—his studio team in Berlin is comprised of up to 40 specialists in fields of science and technology, including mathematicians, technicians, carpenters, architects, and a resident philosopher. The resulting works, which can often seem like the products of a kind of laboratory exploring the nature of human perception (which, in fact, they are), usually require collaboration on the part of the viewer as well, who is asked to meet the artist halfway.

In 2003, Eliasson created an artificial sun in the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. The work was composed of hundreds of yellow light bulbs arrayed in a half circle and reflected in the ceiling, which he covered with mirrors to form a glowing yellow orb. The Weather Project was viewed by over two million visitors, many of whom lied down on the floor to view themselves reflected in the mirrored ceiling, watching themselves looking. Closer to home, Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls, four enormous steel armatures for cascading sheets of water, were visible from the banks of the East River in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

His most recent project, which opened at Bard College on May 15, is the somewhat ponderously titled The parliament of reality. It is the artist’s first permanent public outdoor commission in the United States.

A 100-foot-diameter man-made island, it is surrounded by a 30-foot-wide circular lake, 24 trees, and wild grasses. It is composed of a cut-granite, compasslike floor pattern (based upon meridian lines and navigational charts) on top of which 30 boulders create an outdoor seating area for students and the public. The island is reached by a 20-foot-long stainless steel lattice-canopied bridge, creating the effect that visitors are entering a stage or outdoor forum. At night, the installation is bathed in a precisely focused, moonlike light, creating deep shadows behind the pattern of the rocks.

Eliasson is of Danish/Icelandic descent, and the “topography” of the Bard island echoes the Icelandic terrain, of which the artist as has said, “In Iceland, everything is such a drama. A little rock in a field casts a long shadow.”

The parliament of reality is located directly opposite architect Frank Gehry’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Designed specifically with the college and its site in mind, the installation is based on the original Icelandic parliament, the Althing (literally a “space for all things”), one of the world’s earliest democratic forums. The artist envisions the project as “a place where students and visitors can gather to relax, discuss ideas, or have an argument. The parliament of reality emphasizes that negotiation should be the core of any educational scheme. It is only by questioning that real knowledge is produced and a critical attitude can be sustained.”

Though the bridge to the island with its lattice of interlacing ellipses is sculpturally elegant, The parliament of reality functions more as architecture than as sculpture. Once you get to the island, there really isn’t that much to look at, so you start to wonder what to do while you are there. As the landscaping matures and the piece becomes integrated into the social, cultural, and political life of the college and the community, it will be interesting to see what happens on Bard’s new island.

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  • Olafur Eliasson’s installation The parliament of reality at Bard College.

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