Olafur Eliasson’s work cascades with brightness – literally, and figuratively, too. “I first became interested in light as a student,” the Danish artist reflects on a medium that would become a signature leitmotif across his multimedia practice. “I wanted to dematerialise the somewhat obsessive, essentialist cult of objecthood in art; this age-old arrogance of insisting that an artwork must have a tangible quality in order to have validity.”
Since, Eliasson has created countless kaleidoscopic light shows and large-scale installations opening up an immersive visual dialogue around the purpose of art, the fabric of civic society, and the nature of the public space – yet, despite the complex subject matter, not an ounce of negativity or existential defeatism infiltrate the artist’s imposing pieces. “The dematerialisation created by light symbolises something positive, hopeful – a desire to look towards the future and strive to make tomorrow better than yesterday.”
Born in Copenhagen in 1967, Eliasson is based in Berlin, where his eponymously named studio was established in 1995. Over a career spanning nearly three decades – celebrated in a new Phaidon-published tome, Olafur Eliasson: Experience – the Scandinavian artist has never shied away from making his practice a wildly interdisciplinary one; his pieces have ranged from painting, sculpture or photography to architectural projects and ambitious interventions in the urban space. From the impressive 2003 Weather Project, which drew over two million visitors to London’s Tate Modern, to his 2014 project titled Ice Watch which brought enormous blocks of glacial ice to public squares in Copenhagen and Paris, Eliasson has cemented an unrivaled reputation for pushing and often shattering spatial and geological boundaries.
Surprisingly, however, his sincere appreciation for the civic value of the cultural institution endures. “Cultural institutions may seem limiting, but they are incredibly important spaces in which you step in and see the outside world in higher definition,” the artist explains. “I don’t believe we step into a museum to escape the outside world, on the contrary: it allows us to explore the outside world, through a different lens. In this sense, museums are tightly knitted into the fabric of things like the public space. They are essential vehicles for the health and identity of civic society.”
Conceptually reminiscent of the socially charged, experimental works of sculptor Joseph Beuys, Eliasson’s bold creations are underpinned by an ever-present desire to interact with the greater public, fostering collaboration rather than a hierarchy between artist and viewer. “An artwork starts a narrative, but when it comes to deciphering it, I see the public as being co-pilots rather than mere passengers,” asserts Eliasson. “I trust the viewer enough to let them be the co-narrator of my idea, I wouldn’t want to tell them what to think, but rather establish a dialogue – and the quality of a dialogue depends on me just as much as you.”
Through giving agency to the public, Eliasson hopes to dismantle the notion that the value of a work of art lies within the object itself. “I think the value of the artwork lies in its ability to listen to the viewer’s not yet verbalised emotional needs. The greatest artworks aren’t those that condescendingly give away an answer on a silver platter. They activate something in the viewer’s psyche, listening to what they want to articulate.” Eliasson’s rejection of authoritarianism and unilateral interpretations is pervasive across his work, culminating with the architectural studio he opened in 2014, in collaboration with Sebastian Behman – Studio Other Spaces.
“My interest in architecture came with my interest in our perception of space,” the artist continues. “What makes a space? Where does our spatial awareness come from? There have been countless imposed interpretations of space throughout history. For example, Neoclassicism revolved around eliminating the presence of the body, because that was the value of the time. Many of those spaces, such as court buildings, were a manifestation of a power system which today has become counterproductive when looking at the humanistic acknowledgement of individuality and subjectivity in our democracy.”
Our cities, Eliasson argues, are still to a large extent dominated by a spatial narrative reflecting obsolete values of patriarchy and power affirmation working against the individual reflection and interactions, rather than with them.
“My aim is to ask with what critical tools can we create architectural languages, experiences and relationships which can offer hospitality, inclusion, a respectful hosting of you and I sharing this space in this conversation,” the artist adds, on a finishing note. “By redefining architectural spaces as humanistic rather than simply functional, maybe we can further blur the lines between art and architecture – it’s not an easy task, but it’s not impossible.”
Olafur Eliasson: Experience, published by Phaidon, is out now.