Thinking about the work of Olafur Eliasson, I often picture the kind of surreal dream sequences and quirky set designs that populate Michel Gondry films. Both capture and refract the wonders of childhood in endearing ways. But where the latter opts for an intentionally kitchen-table-craft aesthetic of popsicle sticks and toilet paper rolls, Eliasson enacts his spectacles using scientific instruments, what appear to be laboratory props borrowed from The Nutty Professor or Dr. Strangelove.
The Danish-Icelandic artist has an untiring interest in telescopes and kaleidoscopes, the basis of some of his most vivid and most playful mad-scientist work. Eliasson has been building kaleidoscopes for nearly two decades, in virtually all shapes and sizes. His latest, installed at a botanical garden in southern Brazil, transforms acres of rainforest into an acid landscape of fractal geometries and color—all in real time.
The Viewing Machine is one of many in Eliasson’s canon, though where previous iterations took in European and North American vistas, this one overlooks lush forests. The machine consists of a comically large metal armature that’s anchored to an observation point at Inhotim, a contemporary art center and botanical grounds in Brumadinho. The scope is made of six mirror panels arranged in a hexagonal funnel. Steel rings mounted to its side enable the viewer to swivel the device this way and that, from the distant mountain range to the tops of palm trees that frame the 270-acre reserve.
For Eliasson, kaleidoscopes reveal truths about reality that are too easily obscured. "My main interest is to show that our perceptual apparatus is a cultural construction," he noted in an interview included in the volume Studio Olafur Eliasson: An Encyclopedia. "Kaleidoscopes play with the fact that what we see can easily be disorganized or reconfigured."
His constructions, then, shake up visual order, the way we see—or think we see. Light, form, and color are scrambled into geometrically ordered compositions that approximate the inner workings of the eye. Eliasson claims that after peering into one of his machines, the viewer won’t be able to unsee the trippy wonders inside or the framework that lies behind them.
When he pines for a time when "we can see reality with a kaleidoscopic vision without the kaleidoscope being present," you might wonder if he's half-joking. If not, surely there's an app for that.