© Olafur Eliasson: The weather project (2003), Tate Modern
The immersive environments of Ólafur Elíasson
Your participation is required!
By: Bénine Buijze
Art is a language. In itself, it doesn’t communicate anything, but what is said with it gives it meaning
Imagine an everyday scenario. You are on your way to work. Traffic is heavy, and you are in a hurry. Thank God the traffic light turned green. Now you’re getting somewhere! But wait... Right before your eyes, the traffic light jumps back to yellow. What do you do? Do you hit the brakes and wait until the lights turn green again or do you push the gas pedal and try to make it through?
Whatever you do in this scenario, it makes a statement about your presence in the public space and your relationship to other people. This is similar to what Ólafur Elíasson (Copenhagen, 1967) attempts to do with his works of art. He asks questions such as: ‘Does it matter if I take a (physical) step into the world?’ or ‘Does it matter if I am in the world or not?’.
Elíasson already showed an intrinsic interest in human psychology from an early age. When he was a young boy, he would watch his father – who was a painter – work. Rather than being interested in the prettiness of his father’s paintings, he would ask himself: ‘why is my father so happy when he paints?’ Togetherwith Elíasson developing as an artist, so did this childhood question, finally transformed into more mature and universal philosophical query: ‘Why do people do the things they do?’. Today, this question still lies at the foundation of Elíasson’s work.
Nowadays, Elíasson works together with artists, architects, art historians, craftsmen, technicians and scientists on experiments in his own studio in Berlin (video). Elíasson collaborates with a wide variety of craftsmen because his art reaches far beyond the scope of ‘just art’. “Art is a language. In itself, it doesn’t communicate anything, but what is said with it gives it meaning,” Elíasson once wrote. Central to the experiments at his studio is – again – the question ‘Why do we do things?’ The potential of asking this question with regards to the works of art that he creates is to shift the boundaries of who the author and who the receiver of an art piece is. In other words: where do the task of the artist stop and that of the spectator begin? For spectators to ask themselves this question, the studio often produces installations that are immersive environments: spectators have to enter the installations to consume it, thereby becoming part of the creation and the meaning that is given to it.
© 2014 Olafur Eliasson
Visitors reacted to the installation by laying on the ground, finding their silhouettes in the mirror above
© Maria del Pilar Garcia Ayensa. Studio Olafur Eliasson: Contact
The weather project, 2003
In 2003 studio Olafur Eliasson installed The weather project in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. The centrepiece of the gallery was a monochromatic, semi-circular disk that shone a yellow light, creating the illusion of a sun. Humidifiers created a fine mist in the open space, and a giant mirror was placed on the ceiling. This is what the artist did. How did the people respond?
Visitors reacted to the installation by laying on the ground, finding their silhouettes in the mirror above. In groups, they formed figures: stars or peace signs. One time a large number of visitors spelt out ‘Bush Go Home’. In the gallery, individuality turned into the collective. It did not matter that you did not spell out a word or were just standing on the side watching what other people did with their body: you were in the space. You were participating, just like in everyday life.
Find more information and pictures about The weather project here.
Contact and Inside the horizon, 2014
An echo of The weather project was the installation Contact at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, France in the winter of 2014 - 2015. In an immense, partly-circular space, visitors were surrounded by darkness. Just one line of monochromatic yellow-orange light that marked the curving wall of the area illuminated the room. The other two, straight, walls were covered with mirrors, creating the illusion that visitors were indeed in a circular room, and that the line of light ran all around them. Towards the edges of space, the floor sloped downwards, as if visitors were standing on a sphere. When visitors moved through that space, their perceived horizon (the yellow-orange line) was changing due to the difference in height. This caused tension in the spatial awareness of the visitor, who constantly needed to adapt to the environment.
Inside the horizon was another site-specific installation. It consisted of forty-three triangular columns made of yellow glass and mirrors that lit up from within. Visitors would walk through this colonnade and their physical experience – creating shadows and reflections, playing with the light and continually shifting perspectives – was central to the installation.
Just one line of monochromatic yellow-orange light that marked the curving wall of the area illuminated the room
Art is about taking responsibility, not just about making the world pretty
And this is how Olafur Elíasson transfers responsibility of the meaning of his work onto the visitor. As a spectator or rather a participant of Elíasson’s work, you are the one giving the meaning to the artwork. You cannot merely remain passive: you have to adapt to the new environment you have moved into. Giving spectators the responsibility of participation, Elíasson tries to make them aware of how they affect the environment they are in. “Art is about taking responsibility, not just about making the world pretty,” Elíasson stated.
Different environments cause different reactions from people, depending on what constitutes the environment. Human environments continuously change, and thus it is useful to adapt. Elíasson’s installations may be exaggerated situations to which people must readjust themselves excessively. But in a heavily mechanised world in which people adapt all too automatically, it may not be a bad idea to be more conscious of the adaptations and choices we make. Much like when you mindlessly accelerate at a yellow light during rush hour.
Elíasson’s work is a part of the collections of many prestigious museums such as those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Works from Elíasson’s hand can also be seen at the Centre for International Light Art in Unna, Germany.
© Olafur Eliasson: The weather project (2003), Tate Modern