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Falling for the Panoramic Awareness Pavilion

by Mia Farrell on May 6, 2014


Farrell in the Panoramic Awareness Pavilion. (Source: Andy Buch)

I take a strange big ownership of the public art in my city and these events helped me understand why.

I fell in love with Olafur Eliasson’s “Panoramic Awareness Pavilion” through a series of experiences that increased my level of understanding, interaction and knowledge. My deepening relationship with this work/this place has been growing in waves, for months. Erected sometime in November, I oversaw the construction from my apartment window. During this time, I made the mistake of getting excited. My imagination planned out how this new sculpture would be. It has twenty-three panels of colored glass encircled around a small lantern. It should be bright, glowing and radiating full spectrum color all over. I figured the lantern would spin, that it would be a damn spectacle!


Central lantern. (Source: Andy Buch)

When I first visited the completed piece, December, snow on the ground, night, I was disappointed. The light in the center was not bright, but merely a spot. It did not glow, nor illuminate anything, and it didn’t even spin! I walked away deeming the work, “okay”. At least the sculpture had a pretty brilliant name.

I didn’t consider it again until I received an e-mail, from the Art Center, forwarded from Eliasson himself, addressing the very issue that I had with his work. I was not the only one judging this piece on what I had expected it to look like and how bright that damn bulb should be. To this worry, Eliasson very eloquently said he saw pictures of the pavilion’s installation and everything was perfect. He explained how it wasn’t meant to glow, but to be a beacon, and that if the light inside were any brighter, it would wash out the color in the glass. I understood, forgave, and felt silly that I thought I knew anything.

Then, months later, I went back, during the day. Trying again. The piece is massive up close, you circle it, not sure if you’ll ever find the entrance, like a funhouse made of art and science. With daylight it is easy to admire the quality of the glass, each panel is mirrored on the edges with a translucent color in the center. A panel-by-panel rainbow progression. As you admire that beautifully sensible spectrum from pink to orange, teal to green, you see yourself. Literally, your image reflected over and on top of itself, you see yourself experiencing, mattering.


Reflections in the Panoramic Awareness Pavilion. (Source: Andy Buch)

Entering, I admired the crossing light-play falling on my feet. I saw myself looking like a hologram; all the shadows inside were colored dark purple. I felt like a unicorn. I wished I could have a mirror like this to put on my makeup every day. And all the reflections, myself, everything behind me, everything in front of me, the city, buildings, the park, people, all of it at once, obscuring, reflecting, adding light, color, and color. A living kaleidoscope. To be encompassed, and to see so much, I felt like I was falling in love.


“All the reflections, myself, everything behind me, everything in front of me, the city, buildings, the park, people, all of it at once, obscuring, reflecting, adding light, color, and color." (Source: Andy Buch)

What had changed? Letting go of expectation, a gain in knowledge, the springtime, the lighting?! Everything felt different. Needing more, I researched the artist. By watching Internet videos of him it was obvious that his work was not truly his focus. His mind was racing every time he spoke, and his art was really just a desperate attempt to understand big existential ideas. “How do we know that being in a space matters?” “What state exists between thinking and doing?” Questions about reality, of viewer response, of our roles socially. What do we get out of art? What does art get from us? Thoughts that matter! His works are beautiful research projects on psychological humanistic quantum physics. I became fascinated, his work made total sense. I wanted to build relationships with these pieces of art. I wanted experiences. I became aware of a whole new way of creating, and why.

I stumbled upon an incredible book cataloguing Eliasson’s work that I studied adoringly like a disciple. And then I found out that Olafur himself would be visiting Des Moines. I could have died. I asked for the time off of work, knowing I couldn’t miss this. I was there, sipping a glass of wine (I never even finished), turning down free pâté, and nervously holding my book clutched it to my chest. I was beyond excited. I didn’t know what I was going to say to him, I don’t even remember what I ended up saying. It was something about volunteering at the art center and something about him being brilliant. I stepped up to him, spoke, and handed him my book, a pen, he was pleasant but didn’t say much, simply “This has been out of print for two years. You cannot find this is Europe.” I beamed.



Upon seeing this book, Eliasson said “This has been out of print for two years. You cannot find this is Europe.” (Source: Mia Farrell)

Then the sculpture park, his speech, it was cold, windy. The size of the crowd impressed me, I felt proud. Eliasson took the podium and almost immediately dove into theory. This is a celebration of “public” he said, “We want the park to exercise the type of generosity that we want our society to hold”. A public space is a bridge between “what we think about our values” and what we do with them. My mind spins. What does having this work say about the culture of Des Moines? What does this place mean? He spoke about how this park, this sculpture, should be places we can go and think differently. So much big thought, powerful stuff, packed into a ten-minute speech, and all of it symbolized in a new, beautiful, permanent piece of art. A gift.

Public art is ours. I can’t wait to go back there at night. 

Des Moines native, Mia Farrell, is a lover of most everything, especially art. She spends most nights working in a big hotel and most days discovering, learning about philosophy and art, making people laugh and taking naps.