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Your blind movement © 2010 Olafur Eliasson

Features / Art

It’s OK to Disagree: The Divisive Work of Artist Olafur Eliasson

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2014

Words by

Rob Alderson

One day in 2003, Olafur Eliasson’s phone rang. It was his long-time gallerist Tim Neuger who was visiting Olafur’s phenomenal installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The weather project involved a giant sun suspended at one end of the enormous room and a series of mirrors on the ceiling. Tim watched as visitors arranged themselves to spell out the simple anti-war message “Fuck Bush” and held up his phone so that his friend could hear the whooping and cheering and roaring and catcalls and laughter that filled the cavernous space.

This kind of giddy joy is not uncommon when confronted by an Olafur Eliasson artwork. Try not to smile when you’re confronted by Ventilator, a huge swinging fan at New York’s MoMA. In the same city he built a series of huge waterfalls along the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. People loved them; thousands of pictures were uploaded to Flickr within weeks of the work appearing.

“My works demand the visitors’ engagement; they are dependent on viewers to co-produce them,” he explains. “Many of my works are not only about the visitor’s encounter with the work, but the visitors’ encounters with one another. This is endlessly fascinating.

“I do not mind if people are moved by my work without knowing, or even caring, about any of the theories behind it. I think the art world often treats people patronisingly: take guided audio tours in museums, for example. I enjoy watching people interact without any of this guidance, without the instructions.”

And so while the Tate described The weather project as “taking this ubiquitous subject as the basis for exploring ideas about experience, mediation and representation,” visitors to the space mainly just had fun.

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The weather project © 2003 Olafur Eliasson

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The New York City waterfalls © 2008 Olafur Eliasson

There’s a definite collision between the experience of seeing Olafur’s work and the way people talk or write about it. Take this sentence from an essay by art historian Jonthan Crary in the 2004 book Olafur Eliasson: Minding the World. “The extraordinary indetermination and evanescence in much of Eliasson’s work is not in the service of some pre-Oedipal dis-organization or a challenge to the ideal of an autonomous subjectivity. Rather if the indeterminate and the ineffable are key qualities of his art, they are present as the inevitable conditions out of which other (distinctly non-sublime) events might tentatively occur.”

Um, quite. But what about those people gleefully spelling out “Fuck Bush”?

“I am excited about the accessibility of my work in the museum context. I think it’s great that everyone can feel included and welcomed by the work. Viewing art is one of those rare moments where we can all come together from disparate backgrounds and share an experience – and we can also disagree and it’s OK!”

“With regards to my writing and other people’s writing about my work being too specialist, much of it is actually aimed at a different, more academic audience than the broader museum public. If you think about it there’s a relatively large number of people who visit museums, but a smaller number who go to gallery shows, and then an even smaller number who will pick up a book on a particular artist. So this means that the audience who will approach my work through texts is generally more specialist.

“For me it is also very important that we resist the temptation to simplify language, to dumb it down. Words are capable of much more than just communicating, and just as I would insist that my artworks produce something other than representations, the writings must be read as poetry and understood for their performative qualities, for what the words produce beyond communication.”

Olafur Eliasson was born in Copenhagen in 1967. Both his parents were Icelandic, and when they split up in the early 1970s his dad moved back to Iceland, where Olafur would often visit him during the school holidays. He has always been uncomfortable with writers using his biography or his Nordic background when attempting to explain his work. As his public profile grew in the 2000’s, he was keen to keep his life and his art separate. “[Tracey] Emin is the opposite of me,” he told The Guardian in 2008. “Merging her life and her artwork completely is her greatest success, but I do not have those social skills. I am much more mainstream and boring.”

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Turner colour experiment no. 60 © 2014 Olafur Eliasson

Perhaps because of this reticence, the details he does divulge are seized greedily and gratefully by interviewers. In 2004 he told Berlin-based 032C magazine that he considered breakdancing his first ever artwork. As a teenager he was part of a group called the Harlem Gun Collective, who wore white gloves and sunglasses to perform. The trio were at one time the breakdancing champions of Scandinavia. Now it crops up in almost every profile, and is one of the first facts you learn on Olafur’s Wikipedia page.

“My breakdancing past is often a surprise to people,” he admits. “In the beginning, of course, I was really bad at it. I was given lessons by a friend’s brother who had just returned from America. We lived on a farm at the time and I practised there, moving around amongst the cows and horses.

“For those who are more familiar with my artwork now, of course, it makes a lot of sense; there is a continuum, you might say. I believe that dancing taught me to experience the world through movement and my body; it gave me a physical relationship to my environment. I think it enhanced my ability to sense a landscape with movement when I hike through it. And this is still central to my work, the viewer’s physical experience. Breakdancing also made me obsessive.”

Although he indulges my breakdancing questions, Olafur once told an interviewer he “was increasingly afraid of the day when I have to be in front of my work rather than behind it. What I do, I think, is more important than who I am.”

This distinction makes sense given how his artistic processes have changed over the past two decades. In 1998 he staged a “guerrilla-art-intervention” by pouring a non-toxic chemical into one of Stockholm’s rivers, turning it bright green (he repeated the trick in Germany, Norway, the USA and Japan over the next three years). The idea was to remind residents they had a living thing running through the centre of their city, to reset their relationship with their surroundings. But although the audience was huge the process was simple; pouring a bucket over a bridge and sauntering away so as not to draw attention to himself.

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Green river © 1998 Olafur Eliasson

Today, the process of creating an Olafur Eliasson artwork is slightly more complex. His Berlin studio employs 80 people, including archivists, architects, technicians, art historians, filmmakers and cooks. There are blacksmiths, geometricians and something called “a light-planner.” Setting up this interview I dealt with not one, but two members of his Research and Communications team. Visitors to the studio describe a febrile creative energy with Olafur at its centre; not a distant art deity letting his disciples do the dirty work but the focal point of it all, moving between projects and tinkering, questioning, sketching.

Although his wife and children are in Copenhagen, the studio is very much ensconced in the German capital. “I try to see my studio as part of the city and of the world outside it. When you enter the studio, you do not step out of Berlin and into the utopian space of an artist’s studio. Instead it is an extension of Berlin; it affects Berlin and Berlin affects it.”

But there are times when parts of the studio become somewhere else, as in the run-up to the 2003 Tate Modern blockbuster. Olafur and his team built a 40ft replica of the Turbine Hall so they could plot and plan the work properly. Initially he had wanted a tropical rainstorm in the space, but it wasn’t technically possible so he had to settle for a fine mist instead.

The weather project was a staggering success. It was the fourth of the Turbine Hall’s Unilever series commissions but the first to really capture the public’s imagination. An estimated two million people went to see it (making it one of the most visited contemporary art pieces ever) and even today the Tate web page dedicated to the Unilever series leads with a picture of the huge, haunting sun.

The art critic Brian O’Doherty said it was “the first time I’ve seen that enormously dismal space – like a coffin for a giant – socialised in an effective way.” Thomas Demand, who shares a studio building with Olafur (fellow Turbine Hall commissionee Tacita Dean is in there too) called it “incredibly brave.” He told The New Yorker: “Olafur was an artist in a circus working without a net. If it had gone wrong it would have ruined his career. But he made the space human.”

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Green river © 1998 Olafur Eliasson

This ability to “make a space human” is a neat way of summing up Olafur’s artistic ambitions. Whether it’s a quiet, simple light installation such as Your black horizon, or 100ft waterfalls careering into New York’s East River, his work is about how we – the viewer, the visitor, the passer-by – feel at that particular time in that particular place. In that moment, how do we respond to the world around us? Our reactions can be manipulated but we shouldn’t be force-fed emotional resonance, what Olafur calls “the Disneyfication” of experience.

“The world we live in today is very much driven by an experience economy, one which focuses on commodifying our feelings and perceptions,” he explains. “On the surface, there seems to be a lot in common between this experience economy and art, but I feel it is more important than ever to work with the self-evaluative quality of experience that art offers.

“I believe that self-evaluation gives us the opportunity to reflect on the relativity of the world in which we live, to reimagine it, and to reposition ourselves in society.”

Each time this happens, Olafur believes, we change ourselves a little. To this end he has worked on architectural projects like the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and the extraordinary geometric facade of the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, forcing himself out of the gallery and onto the streets.

But for his next show Olafur is back in a gallery, back to the very institution that made him a star. Turner colour experiments at Tate Britain brings together the artists’ shared fascination with light and colour. Olafur has studied Turner’s work (the subject of Tate’s major autumn exhibition), breaking down and recreating his use of light in seven abstract paintings.

“I have long been fascinated with Turner’s work and his ability to shape and frame light,” Olafur says. “He was painting at a time when artists and art were marginalised in society, and so the atmospheric effects he used in his work were highly radical at the time.

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The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in collaboration with Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta © 2007 Studio Olafur Eliasson

“I have long been interested in formulating a new, utopian colour theory. Since 2009 I have been working on a body of works that analyse pigments, paint production, and the application of colour to produce light in paint. I have also worked with a chemist to mix paint in the exact colour of each nanometre of the visible spectrum. Turner colour experiments grew out of these early experiments, and it made sense to me to apply these experiments to the work of Turner, considering his interest in representing ephemera in his work.”

As ever there’s a temptation to cast Olafur in a very scientific role, forensically dissecting the emotive power of Turner’s paintings, or our relationship with the sun. He has talked before of buying materials for his pieces “off the shelf,” and claimed not to be interested in “the aesthetic considerations of whether a surface should be smooth, colourful or matte.”

But he has no qualms about creating experiences that look amazing. “Beauty is an essential part of life,” he says. “I disagree with those who claim that beauty is populistic. Obviously, the market and commerce is powerfully adept at using beauty to increase profits, but I believe that we artists should take back beauty from commerce. We should reclaim it for art.”

Yet he’s not of the opinion that art can be about beauty alone. Pieces like Your waste of time – where he exhibited massive chunks of ice from Iceland’s biggest glacier in a refrigerated New York gallery – raise important questions in a visually astonishing way. In 2012 he launched Little Sun, a solar-powered lamp developed with engineer Frederik Ottesen, that provides homes, local communities and small off-the-grid businesses with a light source. It’s billed as, “a work of art that works in life.” And since 2009, Olafur has led the Institut für Raumexperimente, “a five-year experiment in arts education in association with the Berlin University of the Arts.”

He’s long talked about art’s transformative role in society and now he can spread these ideas in a classroom as well as through his work. “Art and creativity offer an amazingly powerful toolbox. It is not enough to have a good idea; art is about transforming a feeling, an idea, a dream into action.”