OLAFUR ELIASSON: Experiencing Space



“What’s actually going on between the subject and the space – and how much of that is happening in his space, his perception? The question of the position of the subject within his space has become the theme of my artistic work.” An interview with OLAFUR ELIASSON.

JOACHIM BESSING: Do you remember your first artistic work?

OLAFUR ELIASSON: That’d be my breakdancing. In 1984, I was completely convinced it was art. Today, I doubt that. But my belief back then that it was art wasn’t bad in terms of the performative aspect. That’s what made it, you might say, truly wild. For a teenager, it meant no limits. My father was an artist, after all. Doesn’t get any more banal, actually.

Did he paint?

Yes. And sculpted. Photographed a lot. A lot. Very early on, I started taking art lessons from him on top of my school work. Pretty kitschy. When I was a teenager, I thought, “I’ll dance, since that’s art, too – in principle, it’s all the same.” But you have to realize that breakdance in Denmark had absolutely nothing to do with breakdance in America; nor subcultures, nor anything else. It was a trend, like roller-skating. But there was more in it for us.

“The field of art – seen spatially – is so unbelievably far and wide … it’s like talking about food: the butcher is not the opposite of a baker, or the other way around.”

Did you learn breakdancing with the help of one of those courses in youth magazines?

I was a model for a Scandinavian youth magazine that published a breakdancing course. It was me and a group of about twenty dancers. I won the Scandinavian championship in breakdancing two years in a row.


Yes, wild. It was hardcore, too. I’ve got some pretty funny photos from this period. Where I’m looking all serious with my striped sunglasses …

White gloves?

White gloves. At some point I had to do something with all that. In Asia, they were able to come up with unbelievably beautiful forms of breakdancing. In Korea. Fantastic! Breakdance is one of those things I get interested in and then, of course, I find it extraordinarily … good!

Where does this interest in working with our spatial perception come from?

Even when I began studying, I dealt with questions related to gestalt psychology. I wasn’t interested in the theme of space and time, not in any architectonic sense, but more from its inner aspects: Where does a person find himself when he finds himself in a room? What’s actually going on between the subject and the space – and how much of that is happening in his space, his perception? The question of the position of the subject within his space has become the theme of my artistic work.

Assistants in your studio work in your name. How did this company-like means of working come about?

“I don’t have the normal sculptural problems – wrestling with expression and so on. I find myself essentially uninteresting.”

My projects require an extremely long process before they’re completed, before I’ve taken a problem and, while not exactly solving it, have given it representation. Usually I go through a series of small lab experiments and tests with models on a table. Usually with light. That’s the major part of the work here in the studio. Experimenting, testing – playing, basically. At the same time, though, always keeping the same question in mind: What effect will this attempt have in a room full of visitors? Usually this experiment is then digitized in order to create spatial plans and models. With these, I can recognize problems that are difficult to discover during the small series of experiments. But then I need a third phase in which I have to build a 1:1 model in the workshop in order to take care of any remaining errors. Sometimes, too, you find out it simply doesn’t work, and then, the whole project dies. But if everything’s working, the project goes to a stress analyst who plots it out so that it can be actually constructed. For each one of these steps, I need assistants, since I don’t actually know much about all this myself. I’ve discovered that I’m able to think more precisely when I’m talking with my assistants. And that I also find it more inspiring to work with several people. I barely have any craftsman’s skills myself. I can’t draw digitally at all. Sometimes I’ll perform a lab experiment myself, but since we have to build models, develop lamps, etc.; I need specialists who understand these techniques. That’s why I have a main team of seven people – among them, an architect, a stress analyst, workshop manager, the office. Myself, I’d rather not have anything to do with logistics and the office. So that there’s more time for the art, you could say. Since my works have to be integrated into the spaces where they’re exhibited, it’d be difficult to delegate this logistical work to a gallerist. Other artists do, but for me, that’s just not possible. I’ve taken on the execution myself, but at the same time, I’ve hired the appropriate people for that as well. So, in the end, there are ten people working for me. The number varies, of course, with how much work I get.

Do your means of working imply a further development of the role of the artist? What you actually do is deliver the raw idea to the workshop.

This principle isn’t new; you can find it with the Minimalists, with the ready-made artists and, of course, in Pop Art. In my case, it’s obvious that a lot of people are working on my art, but I think it’s often the case. In Germany, there’s a definite interest in a subjective art. It’s an artistic direction in which work of very high quality is being produced here as well. Maybe that’s why this idea that the artist has to be a great creator – and alone – is so dominant in Germany.

A genius.

Yes, a genius. I don’t have a problem with that. The concept of a genius doesn’t represent a polar opposite to mine. It’s just something different. The field of art – seen spatially – is so unbelievably far and wide … it’s like talking about food: the butcher is not the opposite of a baker, or the other way around. But since there are more artists in Germany who go for this genius concept, my means of working seems to be the exception. But I don’t know if an artist like Andreas Gursky doesn’t also work with assistants.

“My works are machines that create phenomena.”

Photography is a special case; the process is carried out by machines.

Even so, I don’t have the feeling that my means of working are special or “different.” It remains me who presents the problem and makes the decisions. And I have to say very clearly that my studio is neither a co-op nor a collective. It’s very clear that my assistants have been hired by me to perform their services for me. From the very beginning, I’ve been interested in the tradition of working with space. So I was lucky to find a mathematician in Einar Thorsteinn who had studied as an architect with Frei Otto. In the ’60s, he took part in the work on the Olympic Stadium in Munich. In the ’70s, he met Buckminster Fuller and he knows about crystallography. I was very taken up with all that at the time as well: Frei Otto, the utopias. In the early ’90s, I was very interested in Buckminster Fuller and, at the time, wanted to build a geodesic structure, but couldn’t. I looked around and met Einar Thorsteinn. He drew a sketch for me and we started working together. He was living in Iceland and was out of work. In 1997, he married a German woman and moved to Berlin. I’ve had him working in my studio ever since. He’s able to conceptualize a multi-dimensional space and create a model of it. It’s about understanding the existing space in some way so that we can understand that it exists not on a foundation of truths but on a foundation of ideologies and construction. I see the spaces that I create as a discussion of previously existing spatial principles. These discussions take place between a person, the user, and an open space. Without the user, all that’s there is material – and no space. I’m not presenting any sort of utopias, but rather, simply the possibility of how the space in front of my nose might be seen differently.

How do you get your ideas across to your assistants?

“Without the user, all that’s there is material – and no space. I’m not presenting any sort of utopias, but rather, simply the possibility of how the space in front of my nose might be seen differently.”

Before I build a model in my studio, or have one built, I enter into some form of dialogue with the exhibition location. An architectural model is created. Research is begun. In the process of these considerations, the ideas and the problems arise and the models come out of that. Then, for the project, I look for various solutions. In principle, this is completely classical. A presentation on location follows. I present three or four proposals. Further development of the project then takes place in a dialogue with the appropriate people at the location. Sometimes we also work on projects that aren’t commissioned; on principle things. For example, I had a series of experiments here about the “blind spot” in the human eye – to see if we might be able to make a small work that I’d installed on the dining table “disappear” from a particular angle. It worked, and that’s where the idea came from for an exhibit organized such that, during its course, all the works would appear from the blind spot in the users’ eyes – but what came out of it was that the consciousness of what is in a room is not regulated by eyesight alone. Even if you can’t actually see the work, you nevertheless think you’ve seen it. These are the kinds of little experiments I perform. I came up with the ideas for these principle experiments while out walking: How long is a kilometer? How fast am I walking? How long does an hour last? The ways I estimated all this turned out to be entirely different on the first day of my walking than on the third day or after a week. To ask how big a car is or how small; how we place our bodies in relation to the things in a room and so on. From this came my discussion of what a subject is and what an object is. And does a subject, in the classical sense allow itself to be defined with an object as a single unit and to be viewed as a productive experience? At the same time, this productivity in its functional sense always means a juxtaposition between two separate entities, and accordingly, the folding of both entities into each other would be an “unproductive” relationship. Seen phenomenologically, the subject does not produce the object exclusively – the chair is still in the room when we aren’t present. But the chair is not existent when the subject is “out of the world.” We are, so to say, empty. There is no truth in the chair – in the sense of “the spirit is in the wood.” At the same time, there is no ideology in us, primarily. But through the confrontation with the chair, unbelievably interesting thought processes arise during which the chair, as well as I myself, are constantly undergoing changes. This happens over time. Not in time – as if time were a shell. Here, one has to recognize time as a constant dimension. Without being mystical about it – time as sequence. In this way, the work on my models is also a sequence and the project, after it’s completed, is a model, albeit seen in a different spatial context.

In your exhibitions, I’ve had the experience of seeing users more intensively engaged with the works than with, for example, paintings. The phenomenal aspects that your works call up seem almost genial. An important reason for this seems to me to be that the works themselves have been created with an overt neutrality. There is no personal signature of any kind from the artist. In this way, they have the effect of purposelessness, like found objects. The exhibit itself, then, becomes a natural experience.

I have very little interest in the surfaces of the materials. My works are, for the most part, “off the shelf” – material from the hardware store; it’s all made very simply. I think it’s important that the works are made technically well, that the construction is stable and won’t fall apart. The aesthetic considerations of whether a surface should be smooth, colorful, or matte are not interesting to me. The relationship that arises between the users of my works and the object – that’s what it’s about for me, and nothing else. I don’t have the normal sculptural problems – wrestling with expression and so on. I find myself essentially uninteresting. I don’t have anything to say, either. That’s also why I try to avoid any emphasis of my Nordic background, to stay away from the possibility that the user might find a reason in it for my making this art or why the art is what it is.

Which would lead to “the influence of elves and Skaldenmet.”

Not that I don’t find the history of the Nordic peoples interesting, but it would more than likely have a negative effect on the contextualization of my art. For me, it’s more of an ethical question with which I’d direct the discussion: Which spatial conditions have a normative effect? And how can I avoid them so that a new experience can be made possible? An individualizing experience? Something that happens only within each of the users? And in all this, what’s most important to me is to clearly show that what we’re dealing with here is a construction – and not truth. In order not to repeat the mistakes the moderinsts made. How I can keep my art from allowing an aesthetic system to take form – ultimately, that’s what’s most important to me. That’s why I can’t, as a person, be too much in the foreground. I have to keep everything open to the point that, in the end, there would even be the danger that my art would be judged by no means as art, but as design, at the most – because it all appears as if it were made by no one particularly special. My works are machines that create phenomena. The ethical problem presented here is that I should play no role in the relationship between the users and the machines.

Is your art, because of its invasive character, not nevertheless more authoritarian than, let’s say, a typical sculpture? It primarily uses the structures of human perception in order to have the users of your work see what you want the works have them see.

You could put it that way. But I would also say that, in principle, our world consists of nothing. That every perception of space, or even just light, comes about on the basis of a cultural or ideological supposition. Now, there is, of course, the tendency to see the environment as natural – or as a given. But that is an understanding of things based on culturally-, religiously-, and ideologically-formed structures. The danger I see in that is the opportunity for the exercise of power over people made possible precisely through this relationship with the “world” which, in a strictly scientific sense, is mistaken. For example, the light in the room of a museum is not white. But it appears to us not only as just that – white – but also, on top of that, as natural light – for the environment of a room in a museum. But what we think of as white light would be deemed yellowish in another cultural environment. Museum light is also not sunlight; that is, by no means is it natural. By bringing the construction of their eyesight to the eyes of the users of my spaces, I also hope to be prodding them to think about what the constructs of everything else might be made of – the room, the museum itself, etc. As far as I’m concerned, then, I’m first creating an experience. But above all, I’m prompting awareness. So I create semi-totalitarian structures, if you’d like.

Is it problematic if you see the ways in which your art is experienced – when, for example, the users of the Weather Project at the Tate Gallery lay down on the floor to experience your artificial sunshine?

Oh, I’m basically open to everything. Even though I do find it increasingly problematic that museums encourage the commercialization of our ability to experience. I think it’s questionable that the potential for spectacle in an exhibit is being considered more and more, that is, what the works can do with the users rather than the works themselves.

I find your Room for One Color particularly fortuitous: A room lit with an intensive yellow in which one seems to lose one’s sense of color. You find yourself in a black-and-white photograph you can walk around in.

These yellow mono-frequency lamps are a very efficient means of lighting with a minimal amount of electricity. They’re used for lighting highway tunnels or as emergency lights on ferries. The lamps beam light of an almost single frequency – the UV range is very narrow. The number of yellow receptors in our eyes’ retinas is large. That’s why the transmission of the color yellow to our brains is particularly good. We see best with yellow lighting. And worst with blue lighting. With this mono-frequency lighting from these lamps, all other colors but yellow are “removed.” But since our brains nevertheless “know” that, for example, blue jeans must be blue, they try to send messages back to the eye that it should be picking up something blue. The effects that result are interesting since we try in this light to project the seemingly missing color onto the material of the jeans – simply due to our experience that such pants need to be blue. I like to show such a room lit with a mono-frequency at the beginning of an exhibition in order to lead users to the principles of construction of their eyesight.

This experience of losing colors arouses a certain fear in users.

But one also sees better. More can be made out in a black-and-white photograph than in a color photo. The eye is far more able to separate values of grey than levels of color. That’s why a photograph by Ansel Adams seems more focused than a color photo of the same subject ever could. That’s what I also like about the Room for One Color: That, as a user, you’re given this sort of hyper-vision – from a distance of twenty meters, you can make out a liver spot; everything is immediately recognizable. Since colors are also carriers of information across the dimensions of a room, people positioned far away in a room lit with mono-frequency lamps seem flatter than usual, almost two-dimensional.

Are these not experiences that are particularly attractive for urbanites, like people who rarely leave their cities, and so, are all but unable to have any natural experiences?

My experience is that people who spend nearly all their time in nature also value my work. I think one has to be careful that one doesn’t more or less consciously create a sort of hierarchy of which spatial conditions are better for people and which aren’t. I would not say that we could step out into nature. Approaching nature is a form of dialogue which leads, with my participation, to an image of landscape. Relationships and experiences and events can take place there that wouldn’t be possible in a city. Even so, I think you can grow up in and move around in a city and still be a “good person.” I’d rather be careful, particularly because of this long tradition of thinking, “Nature has the answer” and all that. But the problem only arises when the city tries to become nature. The modern shopping center, an extremity of the city, usually tries to present itself as nature. Such a shopping center becomes more attractive the less it appears to be a shopping center. But that doesn’t make nature better. Nature simply does nothing and the city makes a mistake.

  • Interview: JOACHIM BESSING