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Celebrated for creating atmospheric conditions with an artificial sun at London’s Tate Modern in 2003 and an immense interventionist exhibition at the Palace of Versaille in 2016, Olafur Eliasson mixes aesthetics with science and architecture to make magical works of art. Born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, Eliasson grew up with both a Scandinavian sense of values and a love of the environment. Conceptual Fine Arts recently spoke with the artist — who is presenting his refugee-assisting Green Light project at this year’s Venice Biennale — about the experimental nature of his art and the immersive works in his current show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and at MoMA in New York.
How important is experimentation to the development of your work?
After finishing art school I opened a studio in Berlin, where I have always worked with experimentation. It’s a little bit like when you have an idea you sometimes believe that you can think it through. You say to yourself, ‘that was a great idea’ and then you think that you cannot make a mistake because you have thought it all the way through and I can wait until the last minute to realize it. But gradually I came to understand that once you start to turn an idea into action a lot of things happen. That’s where experimentation is important—first there is a sketch and a model, you play around and maybe ask advice from an architect or a specialist of some sort or maybe get a scientist or an ecologist involved. Therefore the experimentation is really where ideas get bones and muscles until you eventually get a body that can do things – it can change the world, so to speak. Of course, the idea in its own way is worth a lot, but I think that to actually have an impact you need to see how ideas are translated into action. One act is worth a thousand ideas.
Your studio employs some 90 craftsmen, architects and academics doing research. How do you bring them together to make a work of art?
In the process of working there are different stages where different people are involved. Essentially, we try to host a strong sense of why we are doing things in order to synchronize how we do things. I try to brief larger teams and sometimes even the whole studio at once as to why we are involved in certain exhibitions instead of immediately going into how to tackle it. Once people know why—and it’s not a static why, let’s call it a dynamic why—once we know why we can bring about the kind of improvisation and the aspiration and the creativity, basically. Instead of having an idea and going ahead and saying how to translate this idea into action, we go backwards and say why are we translating this idea into action? Once we have some sort of common sense in the studio then that’s how we start.
You’re best known for your use of light, water and space. What’s your fascination with these elements and to what end do you use them?
I came to ephemeral materials because I was interested in proposing that the engaged viewer, the audience or the user of art, and the whole experiential context of that, was as important if not more important than the actual object in art. So my interest in light was in the ability that light has to draw attention to our eyes so that you are both engaged with what you are looking at and at the same time you can be confronted with the actual seeing itself. It’s almost like an introspective activity, where you are both looking at something but you are also looking at the methodology of looking, simultaneously.
You bring together aesthetics, science and ecology. Do you have an environmental agenda?
What we all do has consequences, and therefore the environment is an intrinsic part of our lives. It’s not like you can have an agenda or not have an agenda, no matter how we do it or what we do there will always be consequences. I am very interested to understand how to make our consequences tangible because I often think they are very abstract. The question of energy, for instance, how do I touch energy? The questions, quite literally, asks how does it feel to hold hands with the sun, when it comes to solar power, for instance. That’s why I was curious about developing my Little Sun project, which is very much about an emotional approach to what is energy today. In that way I’m curious about environmental questions in terms of—you could say—almost behavioral psychology ways, like how do we turn what we already know about the climate into how do we see ourselves in regard to the consequences of the climate.
You work with a variety of media, but do you have one overarching goal in mind or different ones?
I don’t have a very strong sense of thinking narratives or super-narratives overshadowing one another. I see myself as a participant in a dialogue, which can sometimes be a local dialogue or a global dialogue. I’m very much interested in this notion that I contribute with maybe what we could call a sentence and then I hear something back. For me there’s a sort of interactive nature of being a part of the world, which is something that is extremely rewarding to me. Sometimes it’s a slow build, where you say one word and you get an answer in two years, which is as relevant as saying something in a second and getting a response in a second. To that extent I’m interested in how culture actually creates the world, where as sometime I feel that the political sense is very distant from the world. It seems so absurd and strange to see how politicians choose to engage and interact with the world, whereas I think that the way that culture can constitute reality is a much more forthcoming and resilient and hospitable way.
Let’s talk about your show, which is your ninth solo at the gallery and first solo there since 2012. What is the Rainbow Bridge piece and how does it work?
The Rainbow Bridge is a set of optical spheres that I’ve altered with some color and mirrors, which means depending on where you stand in front of each sphere they are either black, colored or they reflect you. It’s kind of an optical dance, just like a rainbow seems to be changing depending on your angle—you drive on a road and a rainbow appears and it suddenly seems to be moving with you until it decides not to join you any further. In that sense it’s a very interactive piece in that it if you do not move it might remain black, but once you move the colors of these spheres move accordingly.
What about the Solar Compression Wall? What does it do?
There are a number of pieces, such as the Solar Compression Walls, which are using mirrors or reflective surfaces with light. The solar compression has a kind of yellow light that I have used quite often. It encourages monochromatic seeing, but it’s also a very strong light. You are confronted with the fact that you seem to be in a highly lit room, but still the colors are different than what you expect in a highly lit space. Essentially, it’s also a quiet and a minimal proposal, which asks you to offer some attention to it. In the context of the gallery, I think it plays well with the other optical phenomena in the show.
How would you describe your Echo Chamber piece?
The Echo Chamber is an opportunity to hear your self from a different perspective, like the echo itself. And of course I think it’s an interesting and relevant argument to put on the table to what extent can we turn the echo into a sort of trajectory, where we are not so closed into this closed environment, one where we only see completion of our ideas within a confined environment. How do we break the echo chamber and reach out? It’s something that interests me. The Echo Chamber itself consists of a large-scale mirror installation, which is quite spectacular, but should you choose to look behind the mirror you can see that also the echo is in fact constructed with some heavy steel structure. So if you are inside this work it all feels light, as though it’s almost defying gravity, but when you spend a little more time with it you see that in fact it is an illusion.
How are you using a lighthouse lens in a work of art?
Well, the lighthouse lenses are lovingly crafted. It’s now almost an obsolete technique of making fantastically beautiful optical devices in quite large pieces of glass. They are so precise that I use them to make this almost lunar or solar or planetary projections onto the walls. These are in a way almost like lamps, not unlike I’ve done before, but what they do is they project these lighthouse rings, which are very atmospheric projections onto the walls.
And why are you using a compass and what role does it play in the show?
The compass may be one the smallest, but also one of the most central pieces. As you know compasses are about navigation, about how to navigate, and of course we tend to go into a gallery or into an art museum to theoretically leave the exterior behind. Some people maybe make the mistake to say okay this museum or this exhibition is a great opportunity to take a step away from the horrifying everyday life, but the truth is that it is an opportunity to step even closer to the world rather than away from it. The compass is a humble reminder that there is a navigational issue at hand here, but how we navigate from where we are. Of course in New York you know where is the East River, the Hudson and Central Park and so on and so forth, but the compass actually indicates a grid relationship between what’s inside and what’s outside. Besides that I also think the compass draws attention to the polar north and the polar south and the magnetic field of the earth. I think I’ve done more than 100 compasses that are hanging around in the world. They are all different sizes and different colors, but interestingly they are all interconnected and pointing towards the same magnetic system. I like the idea that all of the people who have these compasses are somehow united, or navigationally speaking, they are looking at the same trajectory. So it’s a small piece in the show, but it has a very large reach.
Finally, what can you tell us about your piece Color Experiment no.78, a large grid of 72 paintings of subtly progressing color?
For sometime now I’ve been doing research into how to break white light into the color spectrum. Occasionally we simply just celebrate the fact that white light is—as we know it from a rainbow—a quite remarkable band of nanometric frequencies. In this case I tried to paint so the visible spectrum, I broke it up into 72, which is approximately the point where we lose the ability to see the difference between one color and another color. So if you look at two paintings they are apparently the same, but if you look at three paintings or four you see that there is actually a difference. It draws attention to the subtlety of light and color and it is to that extent a more classical examination in how do we perceive and see colors. In the room a small alteration of light, which will influence your seeing, is also integrated (you will see it once you get there) but essentially the work is a reference to painting. These are actually 72 hand-painted paintings. We mixed the colors out of real paint. For me, who paints very rarely, it’s an exciting opportunity to show a small room full of canvases.