Eliasson, Olafur

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Eliasson, Olafur

1967 Copenhagen, Denmark


Olafur Eliasson is not a traditional artist. His best-known works cannot be hung on a wall and do not involve paint or a camera or sculpting materials. Eliasson creates what is known as installation art. This unconventional modern art form can be described as art that viewers must walk through or around to experience. Installation art is usually created for a particular space, whether inside a museum or outside in a field, and for a particular period of time. It cannot be owned by collectors or museums: it exists for a time, and then it is taken down. It cannot be preserved for future generations, except through words and photographs.

Eliasson's works make use of natural elements, including light, water, fire, and wood, and he often combines these elements to re-create the outdoors inside, producing effects such as an indoor waterfall or rainbow. The artist has been displaying his works for the public since the mid-1990s, gaining an ever-larger following among art lovers. With The Weather Project (2003) Eliasson found his widest audience yet, capturing the imagination of millions. The exhibit opened in Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern museum in October of 2003. In the first month alone, six hundred thousand visitors attended; by late December, that number swelled to one million. According to Sebastian Smee of the Daily Telegraph, Eliasson "has created some of the most exhilarating, thought-provoking, and vivid works of art anywhere in the world in recent years."

Northern light

Eliasson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He spent his childhood in Denmark, returning to Iceland, his parents' native country, for summers. The stark northern landscape of his youth informed his artistic sensibilities, giving the artist a keen appreciation for what P. C. Smith of Art in America called "the changing drama of natural light." Eliasson attended the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen from 1989 to 1995. At the academy, he studied the traditional ways of creating artpainting, sculpture, drawingand learned about the old masters of the art world. During that time, he also turned his attention to the subject of human beings, researching neurology, the study of the nervous system, and Gestalt psychology, a way of analyzing human behavior and perception.

"I think there is often a discrepancy between the experience of seeing and the knowledge or expectation of what we are seeing."

Eliasson's works include photography and sculpture, but he is best known for his installations. Beginning in the mid-1990s, he has participated in a number of exhibitions all over the world, with his works featured at such prominent museums as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and London's Tate Modern. He has had a number of solo exhibitions, as well, at the Musée de l'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in France; at the ZKM (Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, Germany; and at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria. Eliasson represented Denmark in the 2003 Venice Biennale, a prestigious international art exhibition held every two years in Venice, Italy. The art exhibition is just one part of the Biennale, which conducts an array of annual events celebrating film, dance, architecture, music, and theater. Eliasson has made Germany his home base for much of his career, living in Cologne and later moving to Berlin.

Imperfect illusions

Many of Eliasson's works have the quality of an illusion, with the artist creating in an indoor space such natural phenomena as a foggy mist or the light of the sun. The artist takes care, however, that his illusions are not perfect. Eliasson always makes obvious the mechanism for producing the illusion: the water pump and punctured hose that create a misting effect, the electrical wiring that powers the lights of his "sun." In describing Beauty, an installation wherein Eliasson created an indoor rainbow, critic Daniel Birnbaum of Artforum International praised the artist's decision not to hide the tools he used for creating the effect: "There are no secrets, just a fascinating optical phenomenon to behold. Instead of being tempted to look for some veiled gadgetry, the viewer is thus confronted with the thing itself: the fact that light and water in combination produce color." By displaying his re-created natural elements in settings where such elements are not generally foundsuch as in a gallery or on a busy city streetEliasson encourages audiences to reflect upon the relationship between the natural world and the urban world and between nature and human beings. Visitors seeing a foggy mist fill a room in a gallery experience that fog in quite a different way than if it were outside. Mary Sherman of the Boston Herald acknowledged that, even though it's obvious that an illusion is created by the artist, "our senses are heightened, our mind is sent racing, the world seems transformed, and, for a brief moment, the illusion is real."

For Eliasson's works, the audience always plays an important role, indicated in part by his tendency to use the possessive pronoun "your" in many of his titles. While the artist produces the work, its impact comes from the way audiences react. In 1996 Eliasson had his first New York City installation, Your Strange Certainty Still Kept. It featured an artificial waterfall constructed inside the gallery. Eliasson hung a rain gutter, punctured many times over, from the ceiling and pumped water to the gutter, which then rained down through the numerous holes. The falling droplets were lit by flashing strobe lights, creating the illusion that each drop was momentarily suspended in mid-air. Your Sun Machine, created in 1997, consisted of a bare room with a large circle cut out of the roof. Throughout the dayat least during sunny daysthe sun shone in through the hole, its beams traveling across the wall as the day went on. The movement of the sun throughout the day constituted a major part of the work; another important aspect was the viewer's self-awareness, as described by the Web site of Tate Modern: "the viewer was reminded of his or her own position as an object, located on earth, spinning through space around the real sun."

James Turrell: Light Artist

Like Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell uses light and space as his tools for creating art rather than paintbrushes or a camera. Eliasson's works are often said to have been influenced by those of Turrell, who has been given many different labels, including environmental artist, land artist, and light artist. Like Eliasson, Turrell has studied both art and psychology, with a special interest in the subject of human perception, the way people interpret what they see or feel. His works explore the concept of light as an object, a physical material, not just something that illuminates other things. With such works as Gard Blue and Danae, Turrell created geometric sculptures out of light. At first glance, such sculptures appear to have a physical form, to be tangible, but a closer examination reveals that they are pure light.

Born May 6, 1943, in Los Angeles, California, Turrell has been exhibiting his works for the public since the late 1960s, with installations in important museums all over the world. He has won several prestigious prizes in the United States, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as earning numerous awards abroad.

The most significant work of his career is the Roden Crater, a project he began in the late 1970s and which has cost more than $10 million. The projected completion date for the Roden Crater has shifted in recent years, from 1999 to 2004 to some time around 2006. Created from an extinct cone-shaped volcanic crater in the Painted Desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, the Roden Crater consists of several tunnels and underground chambers with openings to the outside. At its base, it has a diameter of one mile, and the distance from the base to the rim is seven hundred feet. Working with astronomers, Turrell has crafted an observatory of sorts, a way for people to observe the wonders of the sky and the play of natural light at various points of the day.

As Paul Trachtman explained in Smithsonian, "Some of the spaces are precisely, mathematically oriented to capture rare celestial events, while others are shaped and lit to make everyday sunsets and sunrises look extraordinary." Trachtman described his experience of witnessing a sunset from within one of the chambers, called the Crater's Eye, which has smooth white walls that slope toward the circular, open ceiling, making the room appear like "some cosmic egg." The way that Turrell has lit the interior of the Crater's Eye alters visitors' perceptions of the night sky above, as explained by Trachtman: "Strangely, as the colors deepen, the sky seems to drop down onto the crater. It loses its ordinary sense of being somewhere 'up there,' and ends up 'down here.'"

Turrell has gone to extraordinary lengths to make his vision of Roden Crater a reality. By the time it is completed, he will have spent something like thirty years devoted to this project. He joked to Trachtman that the price of the Roden Crater has had a human element as well as monetary, costing him "a couple of wives and several relationships." Turrell obtained grazing leases for many acres of land surrounding the crater and became a cattle rancher, in part as a source of income but primarily to prevent construction of new homes on the land, homes that would use artificial light and alter the sky at night. The time, effort, and money spent on the Roden Crater seem inconsequential, however, when Turrell's goals for the project are considered. He hopes it will survive for thousands of years, and he has planned with astronomers for the spaces within to wonderfully display celestial events predicted to take place far into the future.

Your Now Is My Surroundings, displayed in late 2000 in New York City, comprised two parts. The first was a small room, constructed of drywall, with a concrete floor. The glass had been removed from a skylight in the ceiling, occasionally resulting in rain collecting on the floor. Mirrors lined the walls from eye level up to the opening in the ceiling, reflecting the sun, sky, and clouds. Your Repetitive View, part of the same exhibit, consisted of a thirty-three-foot-long wooden chute that extended through the gallery's interior walls, across a room, and straight through a window to the outside. Viewers could look through one square-shaped end to see the outdoors, a view that Eliasson had transformed from ordinary to "quite magical," as described by Eleanor Heartney in Art in America: "the interior of the shaft was lined with mirrors that seemed to draw in light and color from outside, and fracture them along its length." Frances Richard of Artforum International described the artist's exploration of seemingly opposite concepts in this installation: "interior and exterior, stability and reflection, architecture and emptiness." The tension between indoors and outdoors is a theme frequently found in Eliasson's works: the notion of escaping the bustle and confinement of a city, even when in the very midst of that city, through an encounter with the natural world. Heartney concluded that, with this installation, "the experience was startling, as the everyday world became a space as unfamiliar as it was mesmerizing."

While some of Eliasson's works might seem simple in the overall effect, they involve extensive calculations and preparations. Johanna Burton of Artforum International suggested that the artist's creative processes "are made up of equal parts architecture and science fiction and supplemented by a mammoth dose of advanced mathematics." Her suggestion is accurate: to help him with the planning and execution of his installations, Eliasson employs experts in a variety of fields, including architecture, carpentry, metalworking, engineering and structural design, and mathematics.

The Weather Project

The Weather Project, Eliasson's wildly popular 20032004 installation at London's Tate Modern, consisted primarily of the artist's version of the sun and sky. Upon walking into the massive hall, visitors saw a giant glowing disc suspended from the ceiling, an unmistakable representation of the sun. The light of this "sun" shone through a hazy mist, generated by humidifiers placed along the length of the hall. A glance at the ceiling revealed that it had been plastered with mirrors, reflecting the many visitors gathered far below. Upon closer examination, visitors could see that the "sun" was not actually circular; the artist had hung a half-circle of lights, which, when reflected in the mirrors on the ceiling, gave the impression of a complete circle. The hundreds of mirrors, applied in a jagged way rather than laying perfectly flat, gave the upper edges of the "sun" a rough, uneven appearance, making it look startlingly real. For those just entering the hall, the people already inside were silhouetted, appearing as dark figures against the bright yellow-orange light.

With The Weather Project, as with many of his works, Eliasson explored his views on the relationship between the natural world and the city. Regardless of how insulated a city dweller might be from nature, some aspects necessarily intrude, namely in the form of weather: rain, wind, sun, snow. With this installation, Eliasson created the illusion of nature and weather indoors, giving viewers a sense of the beauty and peacefulness of a sun-drenched mist. But he also allowed people to see the artificial nature of his creation. Those attending the installation could walk around the various parts of the installation, noting the electrical wiring powering the "sunlight" and the humidifiers creating the mist.

When asked by Fiona Maddocks of the Evening Standard what the work is about, Eliasson replied, "It's definitely first and foremost about people. People are looking at themselves as much as at art." The installation provoked unusual behavior among many visitors, behavior not ordinarily seen in museums. Visitors spent hours in Turbine Hall, sprawled on the floor, gazing up at the mirrors in an attempt to locate their reflections. Some even grouped together to create interesting shapes with their bodies that would be reflected above. Others had picnics on the gallery floor or sat in silent meditation. Maddocks reported that "there's much serious kissing." In the view of Richard Dorment of the Daily Telegraph, the reactions of the visitors added a layer of meaning and significance to the work: "What the artist began, the audience completes. It is the visitors that make The Weather Project unforgettable."

For More Information


Birnbaum, Daniel. "Olafur Eliasson." Artforum International (April 1998): p. 106.

Burton, Johanna. "Olafur Eliasson." Artforum International (September 2003): p. 224.

Dorment, Richard. "A Terrifying Beauty." Daily Telegraph (London, England) (November 12, 2003).

Heartney, Eleanor. "Olafur Eliasson at Bonakdar Jancou." Art in America (February 2001): p. 135.

Maddocks, Fiona. "The Weather Man." Evening Standard (London, England) (November 20, 2003).

Richard, Frances. "Olafur Eliasson." Artforum International (January 2001): p. 136.

Sherman, Mary. "Special Effects." Boston Herald (February 6, 2001).

Smee, Sebastian. "The Artist Who Paints with the Weather." Daily Telegraph (London, England) (September 30, 2003).

Smith, P. C. "Olafur Eliasson at Tanya Bonakdar." Art in America (December 1996): p. 92.

Trachtman, Paul. "James Turrell's Light Fantastic." Smithsonian (May 2003): p. 86.

Web Sites

Olafur Eliasson. http://www.olafureliasson.net/press/ (accessed August 1, 2004).

"Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project." Tate Modern. http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/eliasson/eliasson.htm (accessed August 1, 2004).