A lifetime game

Jan Winkelmann

One fine summer’s day, Olafur Eliasson and I met together in a restaurant in the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin Mitte. It was our first meeting. I was scheduled to write an article about him for the Australian art magazine Art & Text and wanted to take a look at his studio. To my astonishment, instead of inviting me to his studio, Eliasson suggested that we drive out to a golf range in the eastern part of the city. I was not destined to gain a complete understanding of the relationship between Eliasson’s work and the game of golf on that particular day. Only recently, as I spent every day of my vacation on the golf course, practicing to qualify for club play, did I become conscious of the degree to which golf is both a metaphor for and a key to understanding Eliasson’s manner, and thus to understanding his work. What I have to say about the former, therefore, implies an approach to comprehending the latter.

First of all, it isn’t easy to swing a golf club correctly. Until one actually succeeds in hitting the ball, one is a prey to utter despair. But the first time that ball travels any distance at all, one’s fate as an addict of the game is sealed. Driven by a burning but doomed ambition to emulate this initial triumph, one swings again and again at the ball - which, however, refuses to move another inch. Much practice is required, many set-backs must be endured - all extremely trying on the nerves and, furthermore, very hard work - before one can control one’s swing sufficiently to shift the ratio of fluke hits to well struck balls slowly but surely in the latter’s favour. Finally the day dawns on which one no longer uses only a seven iron to tee off. Chipping and putting are mastered next, as one slowly adds to one’s repertoire the skills necessary for completing a round in the requisite number of strokes. The fine art of using the driver is learnt last of all, revealing as it does an astonishing capacity for plunging the neophyte once more into utter despair, since apparently all his previous efforts are as naught, and he has to start all over again from scratch. The road to success is indeed arduous, sown thick with trials and tribulations. Swinging a golf club involves coordinating a number of elements: stance, grip, swing, concentration - and then practicing them all until they become second nature. Until the sum of all these parts adds up to an optimally balanced whole, one can only approach the latter inch by inch, striving to harmonize this combination of heterogeneous elements by working on improving each one individually.

After innumerable swings at the ball on the golf range, sooner or later comes the day (depending on how hard and long one has practiced) when one strides out onto a real golf course to play one’s first holes. First of all, the course itself is nothing other than a piece of artificial nature. Designed by an architect, it is a clean, well-groomed imitation of nature - an imitation that in its turn has become a part of nature as, ideally, it has been made to blend in harmoniously with the landscape and the contiguous flora. The golf course is a kind of microcosm of all the attractions that nature has to offer. Untended meadows, manicured lawns, trees, lakes, ponds, and small water holes - this and much more is to be found crowded together in unnatural proximity, in a confined space of a complexity, which is seldom to be found in nature as such. The only element, which clearly interrupts the harmony of the golf course is the sand bunkers. They cut across, or break up, the natural green of the landscape like little deserts, a constant reminder that one’s surroundings are not natural but artificially created with the aid of nature. Despite the rationality of this insight, one remains overwhelmed by the experience of nature, indifferent to the fact that this naturalness is just too perfect to be found in ‘real’ nature. The opposition between nature and culture appears to have been dissolved. Wind, rain, air and sun do their part in imbuing this ideal environment with an aura that, whether natural or artificial, is deeply impressive. It does not make any difference whether the experience is created by genuinely natural or artificially natural elements. One yields oneself up to its rich variety - a variety which one would otherwise only be able to enjoy at considerable cost and effort. Yet not every golfer’s experience of the course is equally intense, depending as it does on the individual’s sensitivity and perceptual receptivity.

To return to one’s initial experience of the golf course: those strokes that one practiced in the quiet monotony of the range are now put to the test in a more complex environment. The tedious surroundings of the range yield to the experience of nature, of landscape, weather, and light. One is thrown back on one’s own resources as one sets out to ‘conquer’ the course, to cover those measured distances in as few strokes as possible and to overcome the obstacles that lurk along them. Within the time-space continuum of the game of golf, one is subjected to an experience of nature which - although based on the paradox of natural-looking yet artificially created nature - makes one aware of oneself as presence.

The aforementioned complex sequence of strokes is compounded, made even more complex, by this landscape that also has to be conquered. This convergence of heterogeneous elements - of personal characteristics, such as skill, concentration, and mental and physical preparedness with the objective, given characteristics of the golf course - gives rise to an almost endless multiplicity of possibilities that makes every game, every visit to the golf course, a unique occurrence that challenges one anew, allowing one to fall back on routine - if at all - only to a limited degree, and bringing forth an inexhaustible stock of revelations.

This text was first published German in: Users, a publication marking Olafur Eliasson’s contribution to the 1998 São Paulo Biennale.

© 1998 Jan Winkelmann

German Version