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New Works at the Hirshhorn

Olafur Eliasson, Round rainbow, 2005, Hirshhorn MuseumTwo new shows opened Thursday on the second floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, and an unexpected ice day offered the perfect chance to go see them. Refract, Reflect, Project brings together a few rooms worth of light works from the museum's collection, some more recent and some classics. The most striking work was an installation by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, whose The weather project transformed the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern in 2003. Round rainbow, from 2005, combines an acrylic circular prism, suspended from the ceiling and made to turn slowly by a small motor, with a focused light. The combination of shadows and refracted light, bright white and rainbow, creates a mesmerizing ballet of undulating circles, spirals, and parabolas. The idea is so simple, but the results prove again — as did the last major show of light works in Washington, the Dan Flavin retrospective at the National Gallery two years ago — that light is the most unabashedly beautiful modern medium.

Several other works are also worth experiencing just for their gentle loveliness. In Robert Irwin's Untitled, from 1969, an acrylic disc mounted on the wall dissolves into its own four shadows, cast by lights mounted nearby. It is so dark inside the room containing James Turrell's Milk Run, from 1995, that it takes a long time for one's eyes to adjust to take in the work, a wall of faint light made by fluorescent tubes and colored gel. The longer you sit in there, the stronger and stranger the light becomes. In the first room is the Hirshhorn's Dan Flavin work, "monument" for V. Tatlin, a cool white, V-shaped classic from 1967, alongside the most recent work in the show, Chilean artist Iván Navarro's Flashlight, from 2006. This steel-framed wheelbarrow, adorned with yellow fluorescent tubes, is accompanied by a video, shown on a disappointingly small television set. The video, featuring a poem and soft song, I'm not from here, I'm not from there, shows the artist stealing gasoline, putting it in a generator, and putting the generator on the wheelbarrow to power the fluorescent lights. He then rolls the "flashlight" along a darkening railroad track, in a series of lonely, transient scenes. The object itself has visual interest, combining the functionality of a tool with the functionlessness of the lights (described in the poem as sunlight), but the weighty social commentary of the video is a little overbearing.

Video apparently counts as "light works," and the Hirshhorn has resurrected Jordan Belson's Epilogue, commissioned for the Visual Music exhibit in 2005. Twelve minutes of swirling colors would be pretty dull except for the soundtrack, Rachmaninov's symphonic tone poem Isle of the Dead (uncredited in the exhibit's wall text). More engaging is Christopher Girardot's Enlighten, from 2000, a video that combines images of lightning, all artificially created, compiled from film sources. Robert Lazzarini, Payphone, 2002, Hirshhorn MuseumNot actually looking at the screen helps avoid a flash-induced headache, and the shadows cast in the dark room are interesting. Just outside the exit is a pretty little piece that may or may not be part of the show, John Ferren's Construction In Wood: Daylight Experiment (Facade), from 1968. It is set up in front of an unshaded window, so that sunlight reflects the fluorescent paint on the back sides of the wood slats onto the white paint on the front sides, tricking your eye into imagining that the light comes from fluorescent bulbs.

Also opening Thursday, just across the elevators from the light works on the second floor, were two of the Hirshhorn's recent acquisitions. Earlier this month, Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes had the scoop about the museum's purchase of Robert Lazzarini's Payphone, from the 2002 Whitney Biennial. One of the most successful of Lazzarini's experiments with visual distortion, it is an exact replica of an old grimy payphone, just skewed magnificently on a crazy diagonal angle. Standing as it does in a plain, starkly lit room, it has the tendency to bend space around itself and recalls anamorphic optical illusions in Renaissance paintings, like the skull in Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors.

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Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987), directed by Peter Fischli and David Weiss (DVD, 2002)
In an adjacent room, large dual screens — in their leaning tallness recalling Richard Serra's infamous Tilted Arc — show Play Dead; Real Time, a silent video from 2002 by Douglas Gordon. The camera swoops in circles around an elephant, also turning in a circle, that then lies down, playing dead, and stands again. Here again, the question posed is about perspective.

While you are at the Hirshhorn, go up to the third floor for the screening of Peter Fischli and David Weiss's Die Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987), a video made in Zurich, recently transferred to DVD. It's thirty minutes, not narrated, of the nuttiest home-made contraption ever conceived, a series of self-perpetuating, homemade actions and reactions that play out in an industrial warehouse. Tires, cartons, plastic jugs, ladders, tables, vats of chemicals all do their part to activate the next reaction in the line. It's a huge, moving, possibly carcinogenic Duchamp-inspired sculpture. Master Ionarts loved it, so we may buy our own copy on DVD.

Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection continues through April 8. There will be three Friday Gallery Talks on this exhibit, on March 2 and April 6. The Hirshhorn has periodic updates available on its Recent Acquisitions.

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