Olafur Eliasson sees things differently
Olafur Eliasson wants you to see the invisible. He wants you to know that there are rainbows in the darkness. That the horizon is always changing. More pragmatically, Eliasson wants you not just to try to understand the current climate crisis but to see and feel its urgency. He wants you to know that we should, and can, shape the future right now. “We tend to take for granted that we know everything, but evidently this is not the case,” the 55-year-old Icelandic-Danish artist says. He is standing in his office, set within his four-storey, 30,000sq ft studio complex in Berlin; geodesic globes of coloured glass and metal hang from the ceiling over his head. “We don’t know that we don’t see. The world we perceive is not the whole of reality. We should have the courage to address our blindness.”
Eliasson’s work, which is as informed by physics as it is by natural forms, has always encouraged viewers to connect with nature and be active co-producers rather than consumers; often it is too expansive to be contained within a standard museum space. In 2003, he conjured light and fog in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall for the immersive exhibition The Weather Project. In 2008, he built four towering waterfalls in Manhattan’s East River. In 2016 he installed a 139ft cascade, which appeared to levitate, in the garden of Versailles. And last year he essentially removed an entire wall of the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Beyeler in Basel and let a pond flood the museum. He raises awareness of climate change by making people connect with the experience of nature anew, be it the reality of melting ice or the majesty of waterfalls or the sun, and emphasising that they have the agency and power to protect it.
Growing up, Eliasson’s time was split between Denmark and Iceland; his parents separated when he was eight years old, and he spent the term time in Copenhagen with his mother, and summers and holidays with his father, an aspiring artist who worked as a cook on commercial fishing boats in Iceland. Unsurprisingly, he often points to his childhood adventures among the waterfalls, lava fields and vast horizons of Iceland as highly influential.
To expand his ability to build immersive spaces for his huge climate art projects, in 2014 Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann founded Studio Other Spaces, an art, design and architecture practice. This autumn, Studio Olafur Eliasson – which includes wood, painting, glass- and metal-working ateliers – has overseen the installation of multiple monumental spaces and interventions throughout northern Italy. That includes an extensive solo show, Nel tuo tempo, in Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, as well as the installation of six new, large-scale immersive works, titled Trembling Horizons, in the Manica Lunga wing of the Castello di Rivoli, a castle outside Turin.
The Castello di Rivoli show, which opens on 3 November, is especially significant for Eliasson because he has had a longstanding and valued relationship with its director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and its chief curator Marcella Beccaria. Christov-Bakargiev has also helped curate A Cielo Aperto (Open Sky), four artworks being erected this year throughout Cuneo, in Piedmont, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the non-profit Fondazione CRC. The first, The Presence of Absence Pavilion – a bronze casting of the space around a block of glacial ice that melted, leaving a void – is by Eliasson and was installed this summer at the millennia-old Castello di Grinzane Cavour just outside Alba. “When you enter the work, it’s like you become that piece of iceberg that disappeared,” says Christov-Bakargiev. It’s a tangible connection to the effects of climate change.
Back in his fortress-like studio complex in Berlin, Eliasson pulls over a blueprint of his exhibition for the Castello di Rivoli’s Manica Lunga wing, explaining that its long and narrow dimensions – 147m long by 6m wide – has dictated how viewers will interact with the show. The wing will be filled with a line of six pieces he tentatively dubs “kaleido-scapes”, which resemble levitating satellites. Once inside, he says, the scale will shift, and suddenly – thanks mostly to the placement of mirrors – the inside of these objects will feel much, much bigger. “Like something out of Harry Potter,” he laughs.
“It’s an exercise that has you focusing on all your senses and synchronising various scales of time,” says Eliasson. “That is when you can best sense your own presence in the world, and consider why you are here.” Knocking people out of what he calls the “numbness factor” into a more heightened state of being allows us, he believes, to realise our potential to co‑produce our present; such engagement typically sparks a heightened feeling of connection and responsibility, he says.
Is it a religious concept? “I am not against spirituality, but I don’t believe there is a higher order of truth. There are pluralisms,” says Eliasson. “I would very much like to make a faith space, but every time I was involved in a project like that, it became highly sensitive, and I left because of it. I don’t agree with the extreme rationalisation of our society that achievement is only on the horizon.” A more nuanced view speaks to the title of the project, Trembling Horizons. When pushed to expand on what needs to change, Eliasson says he is uncomfortable with dogmatism and assigning an agenda to his work, preferring that it speak to the viewer individually and that they have the freedom to decide their own responsibility in and to the world. “The most important sculptural project today is the shaping of planet Earth.”
“Through encountering Olafur’s work, viewers can understand that it’s only when we see, in the moment, our place in the world that we finally start to do something about the current destruction of the planet,” says Beccaria. The design of the exhibition allows viewers to see behind the scenes of the installations, made up of water basins and projections. Showing this is part of understanding the importance of our ability to take action. “You see the technical ingredients that make up the artwork. It’s not an illusion,” she says.
In his studio, the bespeckled artist, who wears his streaked grey hair long, jumps from the long, stone-topped table, wanders over to a low-slung Patricia Urquiola for Moroso lounge chair, picks up a guitar and starts to strum. “A new skill I picked up during Covid,” he grins. Another product of lockdown was a friendship with Robert Macfarlane. After reading the British nature writer’s book Underland, about the earth’s underworlds, Eliasson reached out to him. They spoke about their shared interests and concerns, from animism to the death of Iceland’s Okjökull glacier, and discussed the possibility of collaborating on a land artwork in the Lake District. Deep Time is a public art commission by several artists – not yet fully funded – overseen by Copeland Council, whose intention is to shine a light on this too-long-undervalued stretch of British coastline.
Jam session over, Eliasson shows me one of his new works for Castello di Rivoli. I follow him through a large, white L-shaped room where dozens of panes of coloured glass, handblown by Lamberts Glass, a German heritage stained-glass window manufacturer based in Bavaria, are propped against two walls. Like a giant deck of transparent cards, each a different colour, some with circular shapes imprinted in them, the glass panes are often arranged by Eliasson to sit over one another to create overlapping fields of colour. Over the years he has created several spaces using brightly coloured glass, pieces that resemble being inside a beehive or a massive prism. The epic Northern Lights-inspired Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, opened in 2011, and more recently the Vertical Panorama Pavilion, a conical structure made of 832 panels, opened at the Donum Estate in Sonoma Valley, designed to align the senses with the rich biodiversity of the region.
We cross through a vibrant, emerald green room with a long bar, originally conceived by Eliasson to hold cultural salons. The wall is hung with small paintings, drawings and photographs, including some by Eliasson’s father, who would hang pens from the ceiling of one of the ship’s rooms so the points would touch paper; the movement of the ship on the ocean would create lines which would dictate the work. This idea of natural forces creating art strikes me as extremely significant as we enter the next room: a massive white cube that the studio calls the Vortex.
Eliasson shuts off the lights and in semi-darkness I follow him towards the installation at the back of the room; its longest side is mounted on the wall so it tilts. We duck behind and enter. Just as he described, the inside of the space seems to expand; mirrors on both sides reflect a grander scale of space. It also creates a panoramic view of the light that is shone through a small water bath and refracted onto the façade. The darker the space, the deeper and brighter the colours, says Eliasson. I ask him about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours and his argument that colour is shaped by perception and determined by both light and darkness. He nods his head, “I have used light and colour as an ephemeral way of suggesting, ‘If you dare to take an extra look, you might find there is more to see than we see in the everyday path.’”
These Trembling Horizons pieces were partly inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s largest optical telescope in space, which uses infrared resolution to view objects too far away or faint for even the Hubble Space Telescope. “It takes pictures that make the invisible visible.” Most recently the telescope managed to capture for the first time details of the Southern Ring Nebula: two stars – one at an earlier stage of evolution and the other a dying white dwarf – in a dance of simultaneous birth and death, surrounded by a dramatic sphere of gas and dust.
After a minute of gazing at the hypnotic circle of colour as it vibrates and dances, like an EKG of an excited heart, I tear my eyes away and see my own reflection in the mirror to my right. This causes a sort of inverted telescope experience, asking me to suddenly turn my outward gaze inwards and to examine myself with the same sense of wonder and curiosity as I was just contemplating the universe. I realise this is what Eliasson means by his urge to create work that has the potential to “reboot your own presence”.
We leave the installation, cross the room and Eliasson turns the lights back on. “We need to shape the future right now, in the present.”
Olafur Eliasson, Trembling Horizons is at Castello di Rivoli from 3 November 2022 to 26 March 2023