Marshall Berg | Contemporary Art History | 5.8.



I find contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson the most intriguing individual producing work today. He is constantly expanding how we look at, and act in space and time. His work engulfs the viewer, allowing them to become a participant. Eliasson uses perceptual phenomenon as an entry point that leads to much larger conceptual ideas. His work discusses physics, perception, natural and man-made phenomenon, social and cultural realms, and personal and collective experience of space and time. Eliasson incorporates elements from all the curiosities of life, and translates them into environments, objects, and information. While creating certain situations that have never been conceived of, he is not avant-garde. His pieces, while appearing aesthetically new, embrace and evolve questions humanity has been asking since (and almost positively before) ancient Greece, “What’s actually going on between the subject and the space – and how much of that is happening in his space, his perception? The question of the position of the subject

within his space has become the theme of my artistic work.” 1 Eliasson creates installations that prompt participants to ask these same questions within his mediated spaces. These experiences may stain the memories of the individuals, because they are uniquely uncanny yet, subtly informative, activating a dichotomous process in the mind of the individual, of experience and reflection. This cerebral reflex constantly compares the fully sensuous now, with the curious memory of then. The perception of the individual dictates how they will read the work. The relative experience of the work encodes referential memories, changing how they perceive the world following it. Experience shapes perception, and exists as the only limitation of human development and consciousness. Eliasson searches to artistically investigate this boundary. “I am interested in enhancing the role of art as a participant in society and find that it can contribute with reflections of a spatial nature; it can have political, social and aesthetic impact in non-artistic practices as well.”2 Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied at the Royal Danish Acadamy for Fine Arts between 1989 and 1995. In an interview with 032c Magazine he describes his first artistic endeavors, and how he started thinking about his own creative potential. “In 1984 I was completely convinced that (my break dancing) was art. It was pretty hardcore… My father was an artist... It doesn’t get any more banal than that.” Upon entering art school, Eliasson started experimenting with post-modern artistic practices surrounding phenomenology, and delved into researching Gestalt psychology.3 “When I started art school, one thing that seemed interesting to me about Gestaltpsychologie was that it worked with a specific idea of the subject—the subject as a very productive entity. This was unlike

phenomenology, which had a much more formal or objective idea of the subject. I think Gestaltpsychologie works specifically because it also has more to do with cognitive science and neurology. This is what triggered my interest—the idea that you could reinterpret the meaning of the individual based on the experience of the artwork… When I read about Gestaltpsychologie, I focused on the general, basic experiments —about how expectations could influence the way you see very elementary ideas.”4 With these conceptual tools Eliasson set off to smartly and elegantly show people their perception, expanding it in the process. Connecting ideas of relativity to social systems and reinstalling a sense of temporality in objects and experience. In an early project; Green River, Eliasson poured non-toxic green dye into four international city rivers and documented them, between 1998-2000.5 This project encompasses a vast number of ideas seen in Eliasson’s work. A major theme being how we perceive the complexity of our natural surroundings. For example: a person, who is familiar with rivers, in turn takes them for granted. Our brains interpret our experience of the specific, yet relative, life giving natural phenomenon of fresh water flowing through the Los Angeles Metropolis in the form of a river. In order to store it as a functional idea, our mind takes the specific experience of the LA river, and transforms it into an illustration of a river, which, to simplify, becomes an icon: river. The icon river,

represents the functions of the medium to humans. This globally occurring natural event can be represented with the word; river. Reading the word conjures up the icon, and communicates generalities about the effects of rivers, without specifying any specific beauty, more divine purpose of a moment, the specificity of a personal experience. After we perceive various rivers over time, and talk about rivers out of context, we accept our relative experience of river as “the fact of river” and can categorize, archive, and consequently ignore rivers, because they are known to us. We do this constantly. It becomes the device of both social cohesion and unrest. Relative perception results in a paradox. When put in a social equation, the variables of lived personal truths find different solutions to the same problem. The real solution to all problems lies in acknowledging the paradox of perception. This unification is the point of Eliasson’s work. “If an idea only exists as a process, the traditional definition of truth and non-truth is shattered.”6 When bright green dye is poured into the river, the fluid dynamics of the water disperse the highly concentrated pigmented molecules throughout a continuously growing

area of water. The color of the fluid decreases in opacity proportionally to the dispersion. These works are naturally temporal. As the green propagates from the source in the very large and complex water systems of LA, Stockholm, Bremen, and Moss it breaks expectations. Our brains work extremely hard to contextualize our world. It is necessary for survival, it allows us to adapt in a vast amount of situations. We perceive our actions in a specific time and place, and through them dictate personal truth. Systems acquire and adapt to trending relative truths. These systems enforce specific truths through indoctrination and consequence; this forms the basis of perception and builds the boundary of what is humanly acceptable or known. A phenomenon is a situation that brings that boundary into question. The boundary is a complicated metaphorical line in the sand that artists regularly jump over. Eliasson, on the other hand presents the line, in an attempt to erase it completely. Eliasson initiates his experience by first jumping over that line, exposing it, like many other artists. This action relates to spectacle, it points to avant-garde. Eliasson has been placed in a privileged situation to present something unique, undone, lying almost completely out of art history. What separates him from other artists in a similar position is he presents phenomenon in a way that simultaneously explains it, he doesn’t “isolate the viewer,” rather, “empowers the participant.” The phenomenon draws us to the work initially, the reveal of underlying mechanisms exposes the subtle power of the work and

ask us to “Take (Our) Time.” If a city dweller catches the momentary Green River, it will immediately activate their attention. A break in the normal activates an alarm deep in the brain, which quickly surfaces in the consciousness. This alarm is asking: Why? Any break in perceived reality could mark potential danger.

Moving water represents life. It is the second most vital element to our continued existence. Lime green color represents poison, and radioactivity. It can kill us. Eliasson creates a situation in which people will pay attention, because of the perceived threat caused by combining these highly symbolic elements. If they become worried and spend time with the piece, they will deduce an answer, one much less dramatic then initial potential outcomes their fearful brain. As they come to a realization of phenomenon, they start to reflect on the potentials, they ask why they just experienced this in the first place. Eliasson exists as the pinnacle of post-modern art. By that I mean he was put into the right time and place. Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, Germany is the closest space to physical utopia I can imagine, as a man of similar passions. Any project is possible. “I have two electricians, two blacksmiths, a carpenter, a furniture builder, as well as geometricians and artists. I also have two people who are educated in stage design and theater. Then, of course, I have a group of architects, but even within that group there are large differences: some of them are from the world of graphic design, some do very sophisticated 3D-drawings, and some are more hands-on. I

have an electrical engineer, and I have a light planner. Occasionally, I have one or two model makers, just as architectural offices do. Finally, the office itself is divided into rather diverse areas: I have a publication department and an archive with two or three art historians. And then there’s the bookkeeper and a project manager. I do make crucial decisions about what I feel is artistically important, but there are still hundreds of decisions about bookkeeping, for instance, that I’m not aware of. Sometimes it eats up my time to talk to everyone, but I don’t have the feeling that it’s difficult to run. And, at the end of the day, when I look back at what we’ve achieved, I usually feel that we’ve been very productive.”

Not only is Studio Eliasson a factory of conceptual artistic production that could put Worhol to shame, but also an idea laboratory, and a site of workshops, symposia and collaborations. He uses his studio space to experiment with spatial phenomenon and create a language around that exploration. I can only imagine the studio space, from video documentation of symposia, and still images that fill the book Small Spatial Objects.7 In his essay From Observer to Participant Philip Ursprung describes the potential I can only imagine, “I visited the Studio several times and on each occasion it looked different. The first time I was there, I noticed the chassis of a BMW on which Eliasson was working, having been commissioned to turn it into an “Art Car.” Another time, small-format prints of photos of his most recent trip to Iceland were spread out on large tables. From among them he was choosing suitable shots to be enlarged and assembled in a series. The hall has a fitted kitchen and a long table, at which everyone can eat lunch or take a break. Above the large central area is a gallery. There, a group of about eight architects was working under the supervision of Sebastian Behmann. In the

basement is the work space of Einar Thorsteinn, an Icelandic architect, theoretician, and artist with whom Eliasson has worked for a good ten years—their first joint project was a pavilion built in 1996—and whose geometric models in cardboard, paper, and plastic are among Eliasson’s many sources of inspiration. Nearby is the workshop where various assistants assemble artworks, saw wood, solder wires, and weld metal. A specially designed white room is used to test optical effects and find out how our perception of objects changes when they are lit with varying shades of white light. Everywhere there are wooden crates for transporting artworks to galleries and museum spaces all over the world. Next to the office and administration department at the entrance is the archive managed by Biljana Joksimovic´ . It contains files of the numerous projects worked on since the mid-1990s, along with stacks of catalogues and publications. And this is where data is organized, which is available to assistants and other interested parties who want to refer back to earlier projects, whether or not they came to fruition.”8

While most of Eliasson’s work deals in physical perception of an experience, and a good deal of his studio effort is dedicated to creating artistic works of a temporal nature, he also contributes to the literary discussion. His publishing department designs

catalogues for museum shows, documentation of process and product, and theory written by the in house art historians, and Eliasson himself. I have yet to actually encounter anything Eliasson has created, which makes me feel somewhat naive writing this essay. Despite this fact, I feel like Eliasson has been publishing ideas and examples that clearly communicate his intent in the work. By publishing with such attention to detail, he reveals a massive 13-year long web of carefully constructed historical reference. Because he is such an expert in perception, he goes to extreme lengths to make sure he is not misinterpreted. In the process he reveals writing and theory that communicates his genius. This part of the work can be viewed as the conceptual artist’s scientific method, and experimental journals. When Olafur writes himself, he explains himself simply and consciously. His ideas jump off the page, instantly translating words into concepts. He is truly inspirational. Olafur Eliasson is a prolific artist, his experiences and media in high demand. He has published over 45 books from his studio, and his full bibliography of essays, media, and shows, is 45 pages long, with hundreds of references from his short 15-year career as an artist. He has shown at the Tate Modern, ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the MOMA, and the Venice Biannale9, among many others. He has created architectural structures in the form of pavilions, and is presently constructing his largest architectural project to date; the façade for Harpa Reykjavik Concert
Hall and Conference Center.10 Eliasson’s work attractively breaks down ideas, and distracts

people into enlightenment. For him the banalities of life destroy the time spent in it. Eliasson sees a way to shape the world, in which nothing is taken for granted. He seeks to manipulate a world in which perception shapes how we interact with each other and the

environment, and in oppositely, where interaction shapes experience. Eliasson places the participant in a specific space, creating an awareness of a moment, then, drawing attention to how relative perception dictates that time.


Blessing, Joachim “Experiencing Space: Olafur Eliasson” 032c Magazine Issue #8: Space Begins Because We Look Away From Where We Are (Winter 2004/2005) 100 2 Eliasson, Olafur. “Your Engagement has Consequences.” Experiment Marathon: Serpentine Gallery. Edited by Emma Ridgway. (Reykjavik: Reykjavik Art Museum, 2009) pg20. 3 “Gestalt psychology attempts to understand psychological phenomena by viewing them as organized and structured wholes rather than the sum of their constituent parts. More specifically, they tried to explain human perception of groups of objects and how we perceive parts of objects and form whole objects on the basis of these.” Soegaard, Mads “Gestalt principles of form perception.” (2010) 4 Obrist, Hans Ulrich. “VIII — The vessel interview, part II: NetJets flight from Dubrovnik to Berlin, 2007.” Olafur Eliasson & Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Conversation Series; Vol. 13. (Edited by Matthew Gaskins. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, Köln, 2008) 163-64 5 “Green River 1998-2000” Art Info Online 6 Eliasson, Olafur. “Your Engagement has Consequences.” Experiment Marathon: Serpentine Gallery. Edited by Emma Ridgway. (Reykjavik: Reykjavik Art Museum, 2009) pg 19 7 TYT Vol. 1: Small spatial experiments (Published by Studio Olafur Eliasson, November 2007) 8 Ursprung, Philip. “From Observer to Participant: In Olafur Eliasson’s Studio.” In Studio Olafur Eliasson: An Encyclopedia, 10-19. 9 “Olafur Eliasson Selected Biography”


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