Perceiving perception

Jan Winkelmann

For my first meeting with Olafur Eliasson, I'd actually planned to visit him in his studio. Instead of which, he took us to a public golf driving range in an old stadium in East Berlin. The training area in this old abandoned stadium is encircled by a weird backdrop of factory chimneys, production plants and dilapidated housing blocks. The sky was an unrelieved pale blue. The sun shone relentlessly, which was especially trying for me, because I was inappropriately clad in black from head to foot that day. We spent most of the afternoon hitting endless balls at a tall chimney, and only peripherally broached the theme of his work. I'm mentioning this episode, because I realized subsequently to what degree that afternoon and our activities in that place were symptomatic and typical of Olafur Eliasson's art work.

Direct experience with phenomena that are either natural or close to nature lies at the hub of his work. Wind, water, light, temperature, etc... are all factors helping us to perceive an immediate present, where it is not so much the effect of artificial emotion but the individual perception of the onlooker which takes pride of place. In this sense, Eliasson's works do not play the main role, but are rather catalysts stimulating everyone's perception, and enabling them to become aware of this space-time continuity of the moment. His installations don't want to be understood as works, but rather as means of oneself becoming aware of one's own perception and ability to sense and feel the event.

Eliasson is not content to let the onlooker test out his subjective aptitude for perception, but shows us to what extent this perception is usually conditioned by other influences--above all cultural. Here we see a clear reflection of the antagonism between nature and culture and their interpenetration; here, too, is revealed the constant imprint of the cultural factors behind our perception of nature. From this angle, it is above all memory that plays an important part in the experience of nature. Every individual has a precise idea about what nature is. Nature meaning, in this instance, the abstract, undefined projection of a "landscape", as much as its correlation with the idea of culture fashioned by human civilization. This ubiquitous representation of nature offers the onlooker a way of identifying with the perceptual phenomena proposed by Eliasson. This is nevertheless as many-facetted and complex as is the individual in his personality, as defined by a personal history and countless other influences. From this angle, the "recourse" to nature should be seen as a model making it possible to analyze the conditions of subjectivity. Eliasson doesn't point to any exact path, just a direction, which remains open and encompasses within it a large number of possibilities.

In tandem with these phenomenological aspects, the poetic moment plays a predominant role. The artist spends much of the year in his native Iceland, where he produces photographic series of similar motifs, "singular features" of the landscape, such as waterfalls, lakes and islands. Through their unadorned clarity and the potential "melancholy" that emanates from them, these photographs call to mind the picturesque landscapes of the Romantic painters. Unlike these latter, they only rarely include people, but they often include other elements houses, lighthouses , like so many traces of human civilization. Through their sober beauty, they refer to the wild experience of the landscape, without lending it the directly touchable character of installations. In a kind of overall composition, they show the beauty of nature with the artist's eye. In their "a-natural" number and their almost encyclopaedic character, they communicate to the onlooker, in the compact density of similar motifs, a form of the reproduced experience of the landscape, which, needless to say, we know in other contexts, but are no longer used to seeing.

Translation: Simon Pleasance

Published (in German) in: Can you hear me. 2. Ars-Baltica-Triennial of Photographic Art, cat. Stadtgalerie im Sophienhof, Kiel and Kunsthalle Rostock, 1999 (Oktagon Verlag)

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German Version