Contemporary Optics: Light, Color, Action!

By SFMOMA By SFMOMA | April 20, 2021 | Lifestyle, Sponsored Post, Art,

Olafur Eliasson’s visitor favorite One-way colour tunnel returns to SFMOMA, alongside another of his works, and pieces by Teresita Fernández and Anish Kapoor, in Contemporary Optics: Olafur Eliasson, Teresita Fernández, and Anish Kapoor, a small show featuring big ideas.


The artists hail from very different regions and cultures—Eliasson from Iceland, Fernández from Florida, and Kapoor from India—but bring similarly deep fascination with color, light, and human perception to their artistic practice. These interests are on full display in the exhibition in pieces that transport viewers to visually captivating, other-worldly landscapes that prompt reconsidering of human interaction with nature and the environment. All four works were created in the past twenty years, and the growing climate crisis is an undercurrent in each—latent in some pieces, overt in others.

Last at the museum in 2010, One-way colour tunnel is a must-see for fans of Eliasson, whose pieces are known for their broad appeal. The thirty-four-foot-long arched walkway

is constructed from hundreds of panels of triangular color-effect acrylic glass and wire, with light as the transforming medium. When light hits the tunnel’s small panels, it creates a kaleidoscopic effect that adjusts with each step. You see brilliant colors in one direction and plain black panels on the return, adding further perspective on the contrasts between light and dark, vibrant and dull.

“Eliasson’s practice is driven by research on human perception and behavior,” says Curatorial Assistant of Painting and Sculpture Sara Wessen Chang. “The sculptures actively engage the viewer in a sensory experience—triggering a heightened state of awareness and responsibility with regards to our surroundings, specifically the climate.”

Fernández is best known for dramatic large-scale installations that use unconventional materials to translate landscapes into sculptures that consider the psychology behind observation and perception. Her spirit-boosting 3:37 p.m., a twenty-three-foot-long landscape sculpture created in the early 2000s, comprises hundreds of ice cube–sized colored acrylic blocks affixed to the wall to form a horizontal slice of rainbow that invites viewers to stop, take in, and enjoy this point-in-time version of nature’s optical marvel.

Standing before Kapoor’s work Vortex, part of the museum’s Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, it’s hard to believe the piece is constructed only of wood, fiberglass, and lacquer. Its dynamic visual effect, mirror-like and with unexpected depth suggestive of a black hole, makes you see not only yourself, but your surroundings, in a distorted reality. Kapoor incorporates cosmological and meteorological phenomena into his work that investigates the reality before us, but also that which is unseen or could be, whether it’s an alternate universe, alternate ways of seeing, or alternate ways of being.

Though deep intellectual curiosity informs each artist’s practice and viewpoint, their pieces in Contemporary Optics are easily enjoyed by viewers of every age. If visitors were to take something from these pieces, Wessen Chang hopes it’s an enhanced awareness of our role in the natural world, how we live and interact with nature, and how we can be more compassionate towards it.

Contemporary Optics: Olafur Eliasson, Teresita Fernández, and Anish Kapoor through October 23, 2022.

Generous support for Contemporary Optics: Olafur Eliasson, Teresita Fernández, and Anish Kapoor is provided by the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation.

Olafur Eliasson, One-way colour tunnel, 2007 (detail); gift of Helen and Charles Schwab through The Art Supporting Foundation; ©Olafur Eliasson; photo: Ian Reeves

Photography by: