‘It makes a difference to make art’

Or: Olafur Eliasson calls for critical architecture.  

Olafur Eliasson - Lavafloor 2002 (Photographer: Marc Domage)
Olafur Eliasson - Lavafloor 2002 (Photographer: Marc Domage)

Tuesday night, 5 March 2007, artist Olafur Eliasson gave a beautiful lecture for a sold-out room in the NAi. Fortunately he didn’t talk about the announced theme ‘structure’, one of the seven pillars of architecture. He did talk about his work, and especially the ideas behind it.

There is something about this artist from Berlin. His best-known work, the Weather Project in the Tate Modern – a shining sun that at times was obscured by a mist – was shown by repetition at the Projective Landscape conference last year by different speakers. Not by coincidence, as his work is not only often very architectural, but more importantly critical about consumer society.

Born and raised in Copenhagen, Olafur Eliasson moved soon after the Art Academy to Berlin to establish himself as an artist. At the moment his studio has forty employees, of which twelve are trained as an architect. His attitude, he started off his lecture, finds its roots in the ideas that ran through the art-scene at the beginning of the nineties. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze disempowered the autonomous object, the fetishism of it, to make everything far more relative. The relating and relativating object would move his work to the ‘user’, Eliasson on beforehand summarized his own development.

Olafur Eliasson - The weather project 2003 (Photographer: Jens Ziehe)
Olafur Eliasson - The weather project 2003(Photographer: Jens Ziehe)

The body of the lecture was constituted by a long series of projects that he had realized since the beginning of the nineties, and those that he is about to realize. His work is diverse, but several themes keep cropping up, such as ‘pure nature’, the ‘color spectrum’, ‘light’ and the ‘moebius-ring.’ The quantity of the projects is impossible to summarize here, so let me do a best of.

Sometimes the first idea is the best one. A photograph of a poisonous-green canal in Stockholm is explained by Eliasson as a critique on the more and more museum-like character of European inner cities. A city like Stockholm, but similarly Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Berlin, is obsessed by its status quo. Nothing is possible. The green trace in the water changed that condition… for about three hours. But, he directly continued fiercely, after 9-11 such a project is not possible anymore.

Olafur Eliasson - Green river 1998, Moss Norway
Olafur Eliasson - Green River 1998, Moss Norway

Olafur Eliasson - Green River 1998, Bremen (Photographer: Helmut Wieben)
Olafur Eliasson - Green River 1998, Bremen (Photographer: Helmut Wieben)

After a color experiment with the public – ‘look for 8 seconds to this green point’, that in its after-image would look blue – he came upon the second theme in his work: raw nature. He exhibited in Berlin some man-high chunks of ice that he imported from Iceland. The ice, 15.000 years old, was beautifully contaminated with materials of an Icelandic volcano. There is a lot that can be read from it about Iceland, Eliasson thought. But more important was that the blocks were exhibited by minus 7 degrees Celsius, so a ‘mediated experience’ emerged. ‘‘People found it depressing and at the same time beautiful. So that would make it melancholic’, he joked.

After a series of light-experiments, sound-experiments, and light-sound-experiments Eliasson came to an angled, kaleidoscopic pavilion. The irregular form he advocated with an ‘I play with my computer’. The designs were programmed parametrically by the programmers in his studio, he explained, and are a research into spaces without perpendicular, right angles.

Olafur Eliasson - The antispective situation 2003 (Photographer: Shigeo Anzai)
Olafur Eliasson - The antispective situation 2003 (Photographer: Shigeo Anzai)

Next slide. An oval-shaped sun overlooks the skyline of the Dutch city of Utrecht. The canvas, that is lit from behind, is attached to the Douwe Egberts Coffee factory so that the ‘sun’ is best viewed from the inner city. The suburbs look at its back, he concludes satisfied. A bigger version of this sun would later appear in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.

The tension mounts as Eliasson at this point in his lecture announces the most important project he is working on at this moment: a concept car for BMW. When the PowerPoint some projects later reveals the images, it is a disappointment. Over a frame of a BMW Z8 a textile is tied, with icicles hanging from it. ‘They are increasingly unhappy about it’, he says about his commissioner. But it is about the relation between the automotive industry and global warming.

Olafur Eliasson - Double Sunset 1999, Panorama Utrecht 2000
Olafur Eliasson - Double Sunset 1999, Panorama Utrecht 2000

The spaces of Eliasson are about ‘people’ and ‘consequences’, he formulates is somewhat bombastic. Everything is about that. You have to provide people with a direct feedback. Rooms have to be performative. ‘Who in our society shows some trajectories of criticality?’, Eliasson continues, ‘There are only very few places in the world that are not affirmative (to the market-place).’ That’s all he gives away. It doesn’t look like we are going to find any of that in the work of architects. They focus too much on the ‘how’, instead of the ‘why’, he complains. Working with museums and architects, Eliasson finds architects by far the most difficult to work with.

A museum has to be relational, Eliasson thinks, as with art itself. Consumer society is not relational; a new product has to replace the prior one, as if the former never existed. He himself has designed an alteration to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington in which he ‘relates’ different parts to each other with a fully glazed exterior ramp. The glass wall is waving as one otherwise doesn’t experience the fact that one actually moves. ‘Maybe too dogmatic’, he already notices. Art doesn’t fold into architecture just like that, that much is clear.

Olafur Eliasson, portrait
Olafur Eliasson, portrait

Looking into the future, Eliasson sees opportunities for a new kind of practice, that actually looks just like his one: a combination of art and architecture that could attain a ‘new responsive criticality’, working from an engagement with reality. Not socialist, not left wing or right wing, but to provide people with the sense that their lives matters, and that they are part of a community. Social and environmental sustainability. And laughing: ‘Art shows the way’. To finish: ‘I have a dream that content wins over form. I don’t want to kill form completely, because that is what my work is about, but almost.’

After the lecture when were toasting beers I ask Olafur Eliasson if there are (still) critical architects. His answer is surprising and almost metaphorical: architects run through life, are always in a hurry, have time for almost nothing, and are obsessed with power. Quality of life, time for a conversation, don’t exist – exceptions discarded. With Rem Koolhaas he summarizes ‘the architect’: ‘If you don’t say something interesting, in five seconds his attention is gone.’

In theory a building is the largest art installation that is possible Eliasson seems to think. Architecture is however not art, but a consumer product. Promising though is the fact that more and more architects seem to find inspiration of their designs in art. Take for instance a look at the work of Herzog & de Meuron, and on Dutch soil at the work of Claus & Kaan.

Today published on Archined (Dutch/English).

Olafur Eliasson - The Weather Project 2003
Olafur Eliasson - The weather project 2003

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