Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson

Artist, Former Professor, Universität der Künste Berlin, Studio Olafur Eliasson, Berlin

Olafur Eliasson is an internationally acclaimed artist, whose success on the contemporary art scene has grown rapidly over the last two decades. Some facts: he built artificial waterfalls in the New York East River, dyed rivers green in Los Angeles, Stockholm and Tokyo, staged a sunset in the huge Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, conceived the complex geometric principle for the façades of Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, and, soon, will transform Copenhagen’s Christianshavns Kanal with a 32 meters long ship-shaped pedestrian bridge. The biggest international magazines said: “a model for a future art” (NY Times), “beyond the boundaries” (FAZ). One of the youngest artists to receive a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, this Danish-Icelandic turned a former brewery in the Prenzlauer Berg Berlin district into Studio Olafur Eliasson, where he employs more than 30 people, and as a professor at Universität der Künste Berlin, he founded the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments) in 2009. Eliasson demonstrates how art, melding emotions with the mechanics of perception, can achieve new frontiers in the exploration of time, space and society.

Breaking the Wall to the Future. How Art Can Use Feelings for Time to Co-Produce Space and Society


When the wall came down I was in Copenhagen, and I decided to drive to Berlin immediately.

Thank you, and thank you for having me here. I am very excited about being in such prominent company. Yesterday evening some of us met, and one of the guests told me that he was disappointed with my speech as he understood everything, and he thought I was an artist (Laughter in audience). One of the reasons why I say yes to talking at locations like this, obviously is that I am on a mission to demystify art and suggest that op-art obviously has a value, valuable, and relevant contribution to make in society. I think it is not a question about whether one can change art make it more adaptable, but I think it is certainly a question about whether one can make, lets say, the language, or the way we all engage in art, more understandable. I then told my friend that I thought it was a success, having said something that he actually understood. He saw that as a sort of failure, and in a sense that was all in all a nice combination of success and failure being one thing. We went on into something less relevant, whether there was arty or not.

But clearly, I would like to suggest that a work of art, or let’s say an art object, some people would call it. It has not been the predominant idea for a while now. I think a set of relationships, an experience, or situation, the expectations you have, the memory you have, and that all together performs a set of art or a work of art. The work of art could be your sense of gravity in this space if I say it is. A work of art is obviously a negotiable size. It has been like this for a while, and therefore obviously art has been exercising principles of negotiation. Art has, I think, been interested in mythological principles to the extent of: how do we both say something? How do we both see something? Within the way we say the thing, also investigate the language with which we say it, or when we see something, how do we also see the glasses or the mind through which we see what we see. Some of that has already been a topic in this panel. I think obvious/sly that this whole principle of “seeing” and “how we see” as one vision- is an incredibly interesting one.

I have my studio here in Berlin. There are around 40 to 50 people working there, mostly highly sophisticated people, and helping me to amplify the ideas that we want to attend. We have a studio within the studio, within the laboratory. The school is a part of the university, and the same thing goes for the school: how do we create a sort of educational framework where we both have a process of learning, but where we also have investigation of learning how to learn and that inside the same thing. In that sense we call it an art school, but essentially we are both obsessed with, lets say, the performativity of the critical enquiry, but we would also like to co-produce, or be in dialogue with the world, I could say.

I have a small maybe more anecdotal way of saying this, because we started in the school typically to talk about one thing about the history of lime or kalk. Lime, obviously as one found out in the early alchemy, has a disinfectant quality when it comes to wounds and healing. In the early medicine when we chopped off limbs during warfare, we would lime this base to keep bacterial control active. So quickly hospitals became... you would wash it out with lime after cleaning it or watering it down, and lime became this sort of symbol of kind of maintaining some hygienic statute. When medicine and city planning and architecture later one caught on, the colour of lime took up space as being the cleaner colour. In this sense, the Lutheran Protestant Church took on this idea- Northern European- to have white churches- to have it limed inside, and so on and so forth.

Today, I as an artist, work in museums around the world, and I am always working in what you call white cubes, white spaces. Galleries are white, museums are white, and everything is in that sense white. We take it for granted as being a natural colour for a museum. Clearly, I think it is interesting for any student, or anybody really, to think about while you look at a painting on a wall that you might mistakenly think it is naturally white. What would have happened if lime had been yellow from the beginning? Maybe there is an argument here about the, lets say, the inability to see things culturally, and we take them for granted being naturally.

There is an issue here of: to what extent do we exercise our ability to negotiate a constructed nature of the reality around us? Art, I think, has always been obsessed with this. This is not a new story- also about the lime. We have in the studio done some times now already an experimental form, a little bit like the one here. I don’t know whether I should more or less intimate, but nevertheless a bit different. We started out calling it out as “Life in Space”- how does life in space go about? From there we went on to call it “Life as Space”, and now after we have done it a few times, we are calling it “Life is Space”. So, you see this sort of phenomenological approach- the way we play around it in the studio.

I have some pictures. I want to start running through some of my work, showing some works of art and a few photos from my studio as well.

The “relativity of reality” being a topic here- a green river dyed with an environmentally friendly colour. This is Tokyo before it was Stockholm- right around the parliament.

The definition of reality is obviously something we talk about: putting green colour in the river, in Stockholm, I would say, is amplifying the quality of the water. It makes it more real than it was before. It also makes it into a picture, you could argue. Interestingly, the police and the newspaper the following day could report that there was a leak in the heating system of the governmental building. In that sense, lets say, reality was preserved in the minds, whereas obviously it was a kind of experiment with the space- to what extent can I create or alter a space? How can I intensify, in this case, the public space?

Now this is Tokyo.

This is an experiment in Berlin, collecting driftwood in Iceland, distributing it had there been a flood, leaving the wood around in the city.

This is my studio.

The whole idea of: how does one establish a dialogue between art and society? The whole idea that I think art has something valuable to contribute with- led to a sort of a process of working for me, which I found interesting. We are dematerialising the traditional work of art became important, suggesting that fluidity of relationships are, in fact, quite capable of discussing space, discussing public space, and discussing responsibility if you want. The whole argument, of course, first started within what normally is considered as art, which is objecthood in the traditional sense. If I could dematerialise it, make a waterfall a rainbow, maybe some fog... if I could make it hard for people to actually pin down the object, I could amplify the sense that the relationship is more important.

The relationship being important obviously means that the singular experience is incredibly important. This means that the difference between your experience and my experience becomes sort of a driver of what determines the work of art. The whole idea of a sort of non-normative seeing machine, I thought was quite exiting. I thought of a nice statement, especially as experiences as we know it has become a part of market economy- and experiences, of course, within the market economy, in the way that it has been presented to use the last five years at least, has very much to do with: you can buy a certain experience. You can buy a coffee experience, for instance. And buying a coffee experience obviously thinks about an experience being out there in the coffee.

The person who is just this sort of numb person, somehow acquiring experiences, obviously within art- we would like to suggest. While the person obviously is the experience machine, phenomenological speaking and so on. I think we need to kind of preserve some sense of responsibility here and fight the numbness that one could claim that: placing the experience in the product, or in the object, would somehow risk the danger of generalising the way we experience our surroundings. That would again create numbness, and I talk about numbness in the sense that empathy and compassion was a theme earlier today.

Obviously, I would like to suggest, lets support this idea of emotionalisation: the idea that things can be negotiated. In order to kind of sustain an argument within this negotiation, you need to also have a sense of: what does it mean to be emotional?

In that sense, I think art has a valuable argument that we can be different, and we can be together. We can be incredibly different like here tonight, and yet we can create a sense of collectivity. The whole idea that we can experience based on our singularity, and yet we can still produce a society, or we can produce a sort of mechanism or mythological principle for how to re-evaluate democracy as we go along, is something that I find highly relevant- very interesting- and maybe not something that has been fully appreciated as we see the lack of confidence to democracy as such- the kind of indifference that one finds in the world today, in terms of: should I vote, or should I not vote, or does it really matter? Lets say the degree of abstraction within politics, suddenly the whole idea of emotionalisation is just not about a state of feeling; it is a process of how one is a part of society.

Another small anecdote about the sort of principle: It is the one, which I refer to Bruno Latour- when talking about explicitation or making things explicit- this whole idea that you... in this case I somehow feel that it hits a nice string, that you have the first world war, the trenches- in this case the German and the French. They are shooting at each other, as you know, and so on and so forth. At some point, and I don’t know what side- I don’t want to be prejudice- some of them gets the idea to create a gas cloud and sends it over, and obviously it hits the other. Maybe somebody knows, you should send me a note in this little phone system here when I sit up there, because I often wondered who it was- but nevertheless- so here we are, war trenches, and there is this gas cloud suddenly coming over and breathing suddenly becomes a part of the war. What we took for granted as being totally natural, being non-negotiable- in this case the environment, the air we breathe, became explicit.

With some success, I think art can work in the same way. You can show us things that we failed to negotiate or we failed to see as being explicit. Clearly now the great challenge with the environmental situation is: how do we suddenly make the environment explicit? We talk a lot about it. The greatest challenge is translating it from the state of being- an abstract? It is very hard to kind of- what can I actually do as a person? How do I take it from abstraction and make it explicit, make it real?

The whole idea of the “felt” experience, not the Beuys experience; the whole idea of: what does it mean to renegotiate your experienced conditions, like in this case I asked people to find their own way. This is in China in a sort of mapped colour foggy space, where the traditional perpendicular rules of defining space has been dissolved, and you are now walking around in a colour fog. This does not mean you cannot orient yourself. This just means that you have to reinvent the principles of orientation. And by doing so, it is maybe not so interesting that the new orientation actually works. It is interesting to have the experience that the old way of orienting ourselves was a construction. It can change. So showing something like this and making this kind of experience or making this work of art, I think not only produces a new reality or somehow negotiates the existing realty. It also shows that the former one is actually negotiable. It is not as real as we might have thought it was.

In that sense, I have felt happy or lucky to be a part of situations where I could create a space like the one we see here in which people would meet. Within the process of meeting, they would start negotiating: what are the rules for how do we actually meet? How do we come together? Clearly people in this case were having a personal experience- they say singularity was an issue. They were there alone, but they were there alone with other people. I think there was a sort of an element in this, which pleased me a lot that you could be singular-plural at the same time. I think this is a nice place to end it. I thank you for listening.