Olafur Eliasson: VR, mirrors and magic at Palazzo Strozzi

Olafur Eliasson: VR, mirrors and magic at Palazzo Strozzi

Olafur Eliasson saturates the Palazzo Strozzi in virtual reality, illusion and Renaissance rationality

In ‘Nel Tuo Tempo’, a major show at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, Olafur Eliasson alters perceptions of Renaissance architecture through dazzling site-specific installations

In 1466, when Filippo Strozzi was allowed to return to Florence after his banishment by the rival Medici family, he set out to build the largest palace in the city as an act of status and power.

Palazzo Strozzi stands like a piece of solid geology in the center of Florence. With walls formed from oversized rusticated stone blocks, it looks like a fortress: thick, defensive, with a grid of double windows wrapping its four sides.

Since 2006 it has housed the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, which has curated exhibitions of top contemporary artists with the occasional classical superstar to boot; comfortably hosting slides by Carsten Höller and dazzling orbs by Jeff Koons, as well as sculptures by Donatello. In his new show, ‘Nel Tuo Tempo’, Olafur Eliasson has become the latest to fill Renaissance halls, in his words ‘with nothing but ephemera – water, temperature, light’.

Installation view of Triple Vision Survey by Olafur Eliasson at the Palazzo Strozzi. Photography: Ela Bialkowska/OKNOstudio

“Usually an exhibition is an investigation or just a new work, but it’s both,” the Icelandic-Danish artist tells Wallpaper*, and together with curator Arturo Galansino, Eliasson and his studio have composed an exhibition of new site-specific works alongside a selection of three decades of creative experimentation with light, technology and experience. This last component, experience, has remained central to Eliasson’s work, but here it is emphasized: “I think an experience is not something that happens to us…but experience is something that we do.

The first three rooms present new works adapted to the site, ideas so ingrained in the architecture of the palace that it is difficult to imagine how they could be exhibited elsewhere. Eliasson focuses on the palace windows, which puncture these thick, defensive facades, to open up the conversation between interior spaces and the civic realm beyond. Spotlights with color filters attached to a nearby building shine across the street and through a palace window, projecting a triple copy onto a screen inside and turning the transparent window into a sunset repeat. Another installation projects through a window from the inside out, bouncing off a mirror beyond and back into the palace, echoing colors in a shimmer of yellow and blue.

The largest of these showcases is monochrome. Illuminated from the courtyard of the palace, it duplicates a grid window on the wall of the gallery. In this ghostly repetition, Eliasson makes visible the impurities, the dust and the centuries of patina of the glass – “Looking, we forget that the window edits what is outside, the window is a lens… and the lenses are part of of reality, we don’t see an objective truth,” he says.

Installation view of under time by Olafur Eliasson in the courtyard of the Palazzo Strozzi. Photography: Ela Bialkowska/OKNOstudio

The central courtyard itself is a semi-public space in the city, open from the street to allow passers-by to walk around. It is here that visitors will encounter an intervention by Eliasson this fall, a vast suspended elliptical form with a disruptive moiré pattern formed from its two layers. Upon entering the courtyard and below, the interference ripples, while within the rational geometry and symmetry of the courtyard, the sculpture appears to change shape, becoming a circle and then stretching out into an ellipse.

Other rooms display various works by Eliasson that he has selected to speak to underlying themes of translucency, thresholds and objectivity. Beauty (1993) features a wall of mist, with angled light refracting in the droplets to form a rainbow curtain that can be crossed. With a mirrored ceiling and a round arch going down to the floor, How do we live together? (2019) bursts into space, disorienting the visitor who, looking up, sees himself and a perfect sphere – a Renaissance rationality through deception and illusion.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson Beauty1993, at the Strozzi Palace. Photography: Ela Bialkowska/OKNOstudio

Windows reappear in a room with Triple window (1999), made up of three interlocking theater projectors projecting the shape of a nocturnal window, here stretched and blurring the geometry. Opposite is Your timing window (2022), in which the artist has embedded 24 glass spheres in a wall. The palace window can be seen behind but it is inverted and distorted, each globe twisting the architecture in a subtly different way that dances as it passes, an ever-shifting encounter.

Another new work Your point of view matters (2022), made in collaboration with Metapurse (a crypto fund founded by pseudonymous collector Metakovan), is Eliasson’s first foray into virtual reality. With an ambient soundtrack created by the artist, the digital explorer can walk through various geometric spaces, with more moire and playful twists of color and shape. The most interesting moments are the transition from one “room” to another, and the two imagined aesthetics overlap and clash. In a forward-looking way, lingering in this digital threshold seems to poetically riff on Eliasson’s studies of glass windows, despite the two different architectures of palazzo and VR having five centuries between their constructions. §

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