"It's important to show the machine."
Whoever takes Olafur
Eliasson's landscape photographs to be romantic tributes to Iceland
is seriously mistaken. "Nature is a product of civilization," the internationally
known artist avers. db-art.info had a conversation with Eliasson, whose
works are represented in the collection of the Deutsche Bank.
from the "Islandseries", 1997
Photographie, three parts
from the "Islandseries", 1997
C-print, three parts
didn't pass through the countryside, the countryside passed by us, readily
assembled, depicted, reproduced, and framed. And all this despite the fact
that we were at the very edge of the inhabitable world." Olafur
wrote this observation down in the journal he kept on a journey through
Iceland in 1997.
At first glance, the photograph of the same year from his Iceland Series
seems to echo romantic notions of unspoiled nature; the work, which can
be seen in this year's art calendar of the Deutsche Bank as well as in
the exhibition Fleeting
Moments in the bank's Lobby Gallery in New York, shows steam escaping
from a geyser in the middle of a barren hill in a broad landscape, mingling
with the white of the clouds passing by overhead.
artistic investigations and interventions call precisely this idyllic impression
into question. "I don't travel to Iceland to get closer to nature there,"
Eliasson explains, "I go there to peer out." When viewed for a longer period
of time, his landscape photograph starts to resemble a flickering pattern
comprised of billions of tiny details emerging from the depth of field.
The act of looking "closely" has something arduous about it; after a short
time, perceiving the motif absorbs our entire concentration. It almost
seems as though we had to assemble the image "anew" in our heads: what
parts are vegetation, what parts are gravel? How far away are the clouds
from the steam? Where do the clouds of steam behind the hill come from
– a pipeline, perhaps? Is that a path there? What are we really seeing?
Your natural denudation inverted, 1999
The courtyard of Pittsburgh's Carnegie
Museum of Art, winter 1999–2000: warm steam escapes from the icy ground
in the museum's inner courtyard, leaving a layer of ice on the tree's branches.
In the middle of a large city, the viewer finds himself confronted with
an installation recalling the natural phenomenon of the geyser. Yet the
work of art is actually founded in technology: In Your
natural denudation inverted, Eliasson utilizes one of the building's
heating shafts, which he combines with steel scaffolding, a huge water
basin, and mechanically generated steam to create an artificial "landscape."
Seen through the windows of the museum, the impression of a winter still
life or a framed landscape arises. This image evokes associations and feelings
similar to those evoked by the "nature" depicted in Eliasson's photograph
of Iceland. When he notes that nature is a product of civilization, or
that Iceland's lonely landscape has already been "reproduced," what he
means is the experience of socialization and civilization that we carry
around with us, regardless of what environment we happen to find ourselves
in. Our view of nature already changes it the moment we look at it.
The mediated motion, 2002
Installation, Kunsthaus Bregenz
some time already, the artist has been investigating whether direct physical
experience can transform our idea of the world. He calls his works "devices
for locating perception"; they often take on the character of scientific
experiments incorporating the viewer. "Every movement includes a degree
of mediation – or shall I call it cultivation? Moving in a city or in a
landscape also always implies a certain amount of staging and mediation,"
Eliasson wrote in 2001 on his installation The mediated motion (pictures)
in the Austrian Kunsthaus Bregenz. The means he employs with his installations
are as elementary as they are transitory: light, heat, damp, steam, and
ice. Thus, the interior of the Bregenz museum was translated into a garden-like
structure in which each floor and the stairs in between them formed a different
platform for viewers to move around on. The exterior is transferred to
the interior: the path leads past tree trunks overgrown with mushrooms
to a wooden boardwalk spanning a body of water whose surface is covered
with duckweed, along an incline of dirty soil, and finally over a hanging
bridge in a room filled with smoke.
360° room for all colours, 2002
Installation, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris
While Eliasson describes his
works as "manufacturing instructions for natural occurrences," comparing
them with backdrops and stage techniques, his art also implies the moment
of revelation, when we understand how these phenomena have been produced.
The insight into the technical and physical processes goes hand in hand
with a sense of disillusionment. In an interview recently published in
volume, Eliasson said, "I think the reason why you want to show the
machine is to remind people that they're looking," after which he added
an analogy: although we can become so caught up in watching a movie that
we can think we're somewhere inside the film, we can also "switch over"
at any time and realize where we really are. "I think the ability to immerse
oneself in a work and then to gain distance again – to show the machine
– is important today … my work has a lot to do with the positioning of
Further links about Olafur
Eliasson and his works
Interviews and articles:
with Eliasson about Your
natural denudation inverted in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
by Hjalmar Sveinsson about Eliasson.
by Charles Giuliano in retro.rocket.com.
Series/ Tate Modern
mediated motion/ Kunsthaus Bregenz (pictures)
River series/ Pakkhus/ Dänemark
spiral view/ art.net.
© Olafur Eliasson, Berlin
All illustrations have been taken from the monograph "Olafur Eliasson" with the friendly permission of Phaidon Publishers, London/New York 2002.