Olafur Eliasson

Jan Winkelmann

Olafur Eliasson arranged to meet me at his Berlin studio, but instead we drove out to a public driving range. Located in a recently converted stadium in the east of the city, it's an unusual location for golf aficionados, surrounded as it is by a skyline of factory chimneys, warehouses, and dilapidated apartment blocks. The sky was a brilliant, light-blue monochrome, without a cloud in sight. The sun shone mercilessly, which was unfortunate as I was dressed all in black. Our afternoon was spent hitting innumerable balls in the direction of a tall chimney. Only intermittently, almost in passing, did the conversation turn to Eliasson's work.

I mention all this because it was not until later that I realized how typical that afternoon and that place were for Eliasson and, by extension, for his work. This Scandinavian artist, who is now based in Germany, is concerned with nature, or better yet, with the inevitable antagonism between nature and culture, precisely that which generates our experience of natural phenomena.

In his installations, Eliasson creates spatial incidents which confront the viewer with elemental experiences of light, color, water, sky and temperature, with an emphasis on perception and sensation. The artist refers to his economical, simply produced interventions as "machines,"  thus conjuring their functional character while abjuring any fetishistic notion of the "object." Eliasson does not embrace low-tech, ordinary materials because he is a Luddite, but rather to play up the efficacy of rudimentary instruments. The machine functions rationally, but it also unleashes an emotional experience: in interlacing the mechanical and the sentimental, Eliasson tampers with all inherited notions of the dualism of nature and culture. Whether the subject be an artificial rainbow ("Beauty", 1993) or a wall of "frozen" water drops ("Your strange certainty still kept", 1996), what we engage with are natural forces which produce temporary sensory phenomena borrowed from nature, or marked by artifice.

Light – Eliasson's most important "material" – assumes central importance here. Yet it is not the artist's intention that it be interpreted metaphorically, as a flash of insight. Instead, the artist is fascinated by light's immateriality, and the various moods it creates. That having been said, his interest in perception is not entirely restricted to the phenomena described above, for the poetic element also figures in his work, above all in his photography.

The artist spends several months each year in his native Iceland, and it is there that he created this series of photographs depicting various "peculiarities" of the landscape, such as waterfalls, lakes, or islands. The atmospheric images are reminiscent, not only in their limpid clarity but also in their inherent melancholy, of the works of German Romantic landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich. Even though this series seldom features people, the photographs frequently make indirect references to human civilization – here, in the Island Series (1997), by picturing lighthouses. In their simple beauty, these images reflect a wholly subjective experience of a native landscape. The elements of water, sky, light and color, that is, are not experienced directly, as is the case with Eliasson's installations. Instead, the viewer encounters the beauty of nature as it has already been perceived and processed by the artist. This is why the "machines" and the photographs are never presented together. In the first instance, mechanical devices adumbrate a space of direct experience; in the second, the viewer is seduced – willingly – into seeing the world through someone else's eyes.

(Translation: Jeremy Gaines)

published in: Art & Text, No. 60, February-April 1998

© 1998 Jan Winkelmann