Olafur Eliasson's American space

Des Moines

22 January 2014

Olafur Eliasson's Panoramic Awareness Pavilion will seem familiar to those aware of the Danish-Icelandic artist's previous work. It is a study in light and space, a rainbow circle of glass panels that strongly recalls his 2011 Your Rainbow Panorama installation atop the ARoS museum in Aarhus, Denmark. Yet based in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines, Iowa, it also treads new ground for Eliasson, granting him a chance to explore his interest in the commodification of public space.

Eliasson's Panoramic Awareness Pavilion is structurally simple. It is an open-air ring of 23 steel frames, each holding a pane of partially silvered coloured glass. The edges of the panes act as silver mirrors, while their coloured centres are transparent and arranged as a chromatic scale. The structure provides a fragmented view of both the city and pavilion – viewed from the outside, snatches of Des Moines appear in the silver, while the coloured centres are a saturated look into the ring. To the north, the panes part to leave a gap into the pavilion's centre, where a fresnel lamp burns at night.

"To a great extent it works as an orientation device," says Eliasson. "It works with this idea of dividing the view either from the inside or as you walk around it as a colour centre. Walking through the city or the park's paths, you know when you’re in the blue area, then the purple, then the orange. I think it’s a measurement machine that indicates your movement. It’s almost a functional idea of mapping and a number of my works play around with or question our sense of orientation. I think once we establish a contract or an idea about where we are and how we are, we also establish the ability to evaluate where we are and maybe even criticise the nature of being in a certain place."

The immediate context for the Panoramic Awareness Pavilion is the 4.4 acres of parkland that make up the sculpture park in downtown Des Moines. Founded in 2009, it already contains large-scale works by Louise Bourgeoi, Yoshitomo Nara and Jaume Plensa, which are on view to the general public. This public nature of the park was, Eliasson says, critical to his decision to accept the commission to produce the pavilion.

Whereas many of Eliasson's previous works have focused on notions of introspection,1 the pavilion is more concerned with our relationship with public space. "I think a pavilion is an architectural work and addresses a collective system and the idea of sharing, says Eliasson. "In general, light is about plurality. You’re at the pavilion, but you’re also quite aware that someone else is there or could be there, whether close by or far away. Public space is always, for me at least, very much about plural affordance or the ability to exercise hospitality."

The land that the parkland is set in is conventional and, Eliasson says, European in its layout: "A classic park – a lawn with a few paths and some hills; a contemporary version of an English park."2 Yet the simplicity of the park's layout is a valuable resource Des Moines, which is laid out in regimented fashion through the familiar American grid system.

"The tradition of public space in America is quite different to the one in Europe, where there is a strong tradition for public spaces being places where society is somehow tested or exercised," says Eliasson. "In America there has been a much stronger tradition of privatising space and the general organisation of space, both pragmatically and conceptually. It's been very much about the functionalisation of space.

"With this in mind, it is not unimportant to evaluate where in America you can find the kind of public space where the profound values that America has can be exercised. Where in society do we find the critical pockets that can reflect on their own reasoning? A sculpture park is to a great extent a celebration of the diversification of our thoughts. It’s about criticality."

The aesthetic familiarity of Eliasson's Panoramic Awareness Pavilion is therefore misleading. While its structure may recall works such as Your Rainbow Panorama or Seu corpo da obra (Your body of work), its location in the American grid is what separates the piece from the artist's previous output. Panoramic Awareness Pavilion is entirely about its context. What is the value of public space; what is the value of a sculpture park?

"I think that the scale of America has allowed for a different kind of space ideology," says Eliasson. "To a great extent the history of Europe is driven by war, which was often about space or money. Generally speaking, Europe has had to come to terms with the limitations of space. But with the relatively young history of America, it allowed for a much more rational relationship with space, in terms of it laying down a great grid. The brutality of simply gridding the country at the beginning lent itself to a relatively commodified and quantified understanding of space. It was more about the quantity that it was about the quality. Which I guess has led to this very quantified relationship with space: if you can’t measure it, it’s probably not worth anything."