Olafur Eliasson

The name Olafur Eliasson is synonymous with perception-altering work grounded in natural phenomena. His goal? To impact the ways in which we grasp the world around us. With the climate crisis now an urgent reality, Eliasson’s recent major exhibitions in Italy focus on experiences that urge us to recognise our own responsibility.

Hili Perlson spoke to Olafur Eliasson for Issue 62 of Artist Profile.

“I think an experience is not something that just happens to us, it’s something we choose to do,” Olafur Eliasson opined. The Icelandic–Danish artist was speaking to the press about his new site-specific installation Under the weather, 2022, an elliptical structure suspended at eight metres above the public courtyard of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The work’s disorienting moiré effect, created by the interplay of overlying patterns, altered the appearance of the space’s strict orthogonal architecture, making its perfect square seem rectangular, and the sculpture’s elliptical shape appear perfectly round. Like in many of the artist’s works, recognising the simplicity of the mechanism behind the sensory illusion can be as jarring as its effect. And that, in fact, is part of the artist’s message. “We are never really objective,” Eliasson continued later in our private conversation, driving home his point on how unreliable our idea of reality can be. “Whether or not we accept it, we are always influenced by our own history or legacy, and the local circumstances in which we live.”

Eliasson’s show at Palazzo Strozzi, titled Nel tuo tempo (In your time), ran from September 2022 to January 2023, and marked his largest exhibition in Italy to date. Seven years in the making, it featured a host of new and older works, many of which consisted of little more than lighting and mirrors. Together with curator Arturo Galansino, Eliasson and his studio composed a meandering path through the museum’s austere architecture with new, site-responsive works alongside a selection from three decades of creative experimentation, including the artist’s latest forays into VR works, installed in the basement galleries. The entire exhibition interacted with – and subverted the perception of – the Palazzo’s Renaissance rigidity, highlighting the viewer’s own implication in the completion of the artwork. Indeed, many of the installations on view appeared different depending on a viewer’s position, movement in space and, ultimately, one’s willingness to enter into the landscapes that Eliasson has constructed as an active co-producer rather than a mere spectator. “There’s not a lot of solid, massive works in the show. There’s often nothing but ephemera: water, temperature, lights,” Eliasson explained. “You might even walk into a gallery and say, ‘Where is the artwork?’ Well, maybe the artwork is the quality of your experience.”

The fifty-five-year-old Eliasson has been producing ambitious work that explores the relationship between art, perception, and the natural world since the early 1990s. But it wasn’t until 2003, with the unveiling of his installation The weather project at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, that the Berlin-based artist reached mainstream renown far beyond the art world’s circles. The large-scale installation comprised an immersive environment which, using only light, mirrors, and fog, mimicked an artificial sunset in the middle of the museum. Moody, sublime, and evocative, the light conditions in the massive exhibition space elicited all sorts of emotional and physical reactions from the reportedly two million visitors who saw it; awe-struck, many felt compelled to lie down on the ground and look up at the “sun.” But inspiring awe is not necessarily the artist’s goal. Here, too, Eliasson revealed the sleight of hand behind the stunning work. By walking to the far end of the hall, visitors could see how the glowing orb was constructed, and the reverse of the mirror structure was visible from the top floor of the museum. Eliasson’s ambitions are to make people reconnect with the experience of nature, while emphasising that they have the agency and power to protect it.

Since then, Eliasson has staged major installations around the world, in high-profile institutions and in public space. Water, in addition to light, takes centre stage in some of his most memorable, monumental projects. In 2008, Eliasson added four towering waterfalls to Manhattan’s East River. A seemingly levitating cascade installed in the garden of Versailles was the showstopper in Eliasson’s 2016 takeover of the French palace. In 2019, his work Riverbed, 2014, was featured in the exhibition Water at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, filling the museum space with a rocky landscape through which a narrow stream meandered. And in 2021, he removed an entire wall of the Renzo Piano–designed Fondation Beyeler outside of Basel and let a pond flood the museum’s ground floor. “As an artist, I have two roles. One [is] as a participant in civic society like everyone else, and I have the same responsibility as everyone else to live by my values to the best of my efforts. Besides that, I also have a responsibility as a public figure,” Eliasson said, explaining his unrelenting interest in creating artworks that urge us to face climate change. “I bring the issues that I believe are important into my artistic practice.”

Eliasson’s childhood was spent between Denmark and Iceland following his parents’ separation, and Iceland’s vast volcanic landscapes, geysers, and majestic waterfalls – experienced through the eyes of an adventurous child – still inform his practice. The island’s weather, the spectacular northern lights, arctic moss, fog, and ice are all elements that make their way into Eliasson’s creations. Protecting nature, and assuming responsibility for our actions, are values inherent to his work and its production. “For some time now, I have been gathering the carbon footprint of my own exhibitions, displayed on my homepage. Just like everyone else, I also need to weigh my choices up against alternative choices. I have chosen to work with awareness at times where I believed awareness was important. Today, we have awareness. Now we need to go from awareness into action.” Working out of his four-storey, thirty-thousand-square-foot studio complex in Berlin, the artist has the capacity to design and fabricate large-scale art projects in-house, and maintain an overview over their carbon footprint in order to keep it in check and offset it.

Back in northern Italy, Eliasson has opened another major show in addition to his exhibition in Florence, at the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, located just outside Turin. Titled Orizzonti tremanti (Trembling Horizons), the solo exhibition marks a homecoming of sorts – Eliasson held his first institutional show outside Scandinavia here in 1999, and has cultivated a strong relationship with the museum’s director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and its chief curator Marcella Beccaria. The current exhibition is installed inside the Manica Lunga, the museum’s narrow, elongated baroque gallery. Because of the space’s specific dimensions, Eliasson has designed a zigzagging floor pattern that leads visitors along the show’s six new site-aware works, which he dubbed “kaleidoramas.” Inspired by scientific instruments, each kaleidorama comes alive through the interplay of the viewer’s movement and light reflected on mirrors and water, to create evolving visual and spatial environments that oscillate according to the behaviour of water or the influence of optical instruments. “Standing inside these kaleidoramas, you may feel as if you were watching time unfold,” Eliasson said. “It is an opportunity to reconsider your sense of scale and time, like when you study images from a deep-space telescope, which come from the very limits of our imagination.”

At the far end of the corridor-like space, Eliasson has installed the piece Your non-human friend and navigator, 2022, a new sculptural installation made of two pieces of driftwood – one suspended, one placed on the ground – that the artist collected from the beaches of Iceland. A magnet orients the suspended log along the north–south axis, while thin veils of watercolour on the driftwood that is laid on the ground evoke the currents that have carried it at sea.

Eliasson has also created a permanent public sculpture for the northern Italian region of Piedmont, whose hills were formed by the melting of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. It’s part of the project A Cielo Aperto (Open Sky), for which the Castello di Rivoli museum commissioned public sculptures from four artists to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the non-profit Fondazione CRC, which provides important support to art and culture in the region. The commissions include works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Susan Philipsz, Otobong Nkanga, and Eliasson, whose contribution was unveiled last summer outside the Castello di Grinzane Cavour. Eliasson created is contribution, titled The presence of absence pavilion, 2019, by scanning and recreating a block of glacial ice fished out of the Atlantic, then casting a negative of its outline in bronze. The void left by the disappeared iceberg can fit one person, and standing inside the pavilion, overlooking the rolling landscape at the foothills of the Italian Alps, offers a solemn meditation on man-made climate devastation.

“People might actually stand next to each other and have a very different experience of the very same situation, and I think it’s an opportunity to exercise the idea that we can share a space without having to agree,” Eliasson told me when I tried to challenge him about the impact his work might have in a post-truth era, in which even scientific facts such as global warming are contested. “For me, culture has always been one of the platforms where that was the case. It’s also a platform which constantly revisits its own validity as a source.”

As an artist so deeply preoccupied with notions of perception and its validity, Eliasson is also constantly questioning and challenging his own understanding of his place in the world. “Through the areas of identity politics and decolonisation, I have come to understand that I am blind too. These are not topics that are at the heart of my artistic practice, but they are very much part of how I’ve been able to reconsider the validity of my own privilege,” he told me after the opening of his exhibition in Florence. “There’s a kind of otherness that I have been alarmingly ignorant about – such as the fact that I was educated in a welfare society that only a century ago was a hugely extractive colonial power. When I talk about this principle of plural perspective, I think it starts with accepting the fact that we’re often blinded by our own privilege. I’m a white, middle-aged, Western European male who goes by the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him,’ and when I speak, I accept the fact that I might not speak for everyone. I also accept that when I talk about plural perspective, I speak from that very position and some people might not feel seen by my exhibition, and I must incorporate that into my future ways of working.”

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62.

Olafur Eliasson: Orizzonti tremanti 
3 November, 2022 – 2 July, 2023
Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli 

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related