Conceptual art’s shift away from the traditional art object—sometimes dubiously referred to as "dematerialization"—was more or less an idée reçue in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Olafur Eliasson was beginning to make art as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. Though it was probably a dead end as a formal aesthetic proposition, “dematerialization” provided Eliasson with an open mandate to reach beyond the confines of specifically artistic concerns as he evolved a body of work that ranges from discrete interventions to room-size installations and massive, museum-wide environments—all of it employing shifting frames of reference that are shared with science, psychology and architecture. In this growing body of “objectless” works, experience and perception, rather than a supposedly unmediated thing-in-itself, have become Eliasson’s elusive subject. The physical components of these works—fog, light, ice and earth as well as steel, plastic and glass—are as heterogenous as the structures themselves, though the work shares a central function: fostering an engagement with an environment simultaneously with reflection on that engagement. When I spoke to the artist this spring, I was keen to discuss one of the most unusual moments in his varied oeuvre, his recent installation in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall, titled The Weather Project. This was a giant artificial sun placed in a mirrored arid fog-filled environment that droves of people came to see and took ownership of in an aggressive, sometimes cultish manner. I also wanted to explore how the interstitial position of his work, which is both equally engaged and equally distant from science, poetry and politics, could be compared to the role that modern philosophy—the “handmaiden” or the “queen” of other disciplines, according to Immanuel Kant—has occupied in the critical tradition that stretches from that pre-Romantic philosopher through G.W.F. Hegel to the present.
Chris Gilbert You often use the phrase “seeing yourself seeing” or “sensing yourself sensing” to describe the way your work functions. It is interesting that this proposition—namely, that the experience of nature is at least partly a human construct—could be taken as a summary of Romantic philosophy’s central idea. Immanuel Kant often referred to his work as effecting a reversal of the Copernican revolution that had put the sun rather than human beings and the earth at the center of the universe. Like the Romantics who followed him, Kant returns humanity to the center with the claim that we are co-creators of the world that we appear to encounter. It seems to me that a similar dynamic, accompanied by an ethics that likewise emphasizes human responsibility, operates in your work. It is indicated with particular clarity in both the title and the function of the work Your spiral view, which puts the viewer in the center of a light-refracting tube.
Olafur Eliasson If so, I hope this happens in a non-normative way. The problem with putting the model of the person seeing at the center is that it often results in normative ideas of spatiality and personhood. I would like to have the model of the subjective and singular experience at the center, but I would also like it to function non-normatively, which I suppose is a paradox. Kantian epistemology always seems to me inescapably normative. As I use these ideas of seeing-yourself-sensing or sensing-yourself-seeing, they are about trying to introduce relationships between having an experience and simultaneously evaluating and being aware that you are having this experience. It’s not about experience versus interpretation but about the experience inside the interpretive act, about the experience itself being interpretive. You could say that I’m trying to put the body in the mind and the mind in the body. Although I am still proposing a model—a way of seeing and engaging and a way of evaluating our surroundings as a human construction—it can operate with an extremely high degree of singularity. And the important thing is to acknowledge that it is merely a construction, which means that we are not offering a higher state of truth or truthfulness. I can’t say, “Now I’ve got the right model.” It’s not about utopia or anything final.
CG Your concerns about normativity seem particularly relevant to Minimalist art, where, in spite of its ostensibly generic qualities, there always appears to be a particular kind of viewer with a fixed gender and class imagined. I would contend that, though your work may not be normative, there is still an ethical dimension to it. It’s a kind of limit case of ethics, involving an extremely open-ended and reduced ethical proposition. Perhaps it can be seen as a formal ethics in the sense that it doesn’t determine any content.
OE I agree. There is an ethical aspect to this insofar as I could step back and ask myself, Why am I so interested in the introspective ideas of experience and in the notion that our evaluation of a situation is a crucial part of the production of the actual situation? My perspective implements a certain idea of ethics, as you say. because it entails reflection on the expanded context of the work. It requires looking at the ethics in the production of the situation and its experience, and leads to questions about producing things you believe in and treating other people properly—questions about the ethics of what you do with your beliefs and the rules you choose to live by. The paradox that I have to wrestle with is that I say that it’s not about coming to a final conclusion but about the way things and situations gain meaning. Yet in emphasizing that people can reconsider or at least evaluate their way of experiencing the world, I am eventually led to questions about the notion of individual freedom, and since I don’t believe that freedom exists in the modern sense that one could ever fully be autonomous or “liberated,” the paradox is that I’m presenting a model of seeing and also facing the fact that my model cannot be a solution but rather a question, maybe a step in a process of some sort of self-realization or self-reflection.
CG Kantian ethics, of course, is also procedural and turns on recovering autonomy and freedom in a causally determined world. You could say that the crucial gesture of Kant’s philosophy is to posit that there is a noumenal world, which is in essence a different perspective on the everyday world of phenomena. The defining feature of this noumenal perspective is that it allows for human freedom and that freedom in turn allows for action. I had the idea that your work might somehow be thought of as a kind of training ground for activism. Yet I’m also sure that that is too direct.
OE I don’t consider my work as training for activism, though I don’t dislike the idea, but I do think that museums and art institutions can provide training grounds for different kinds of self-reflective activities. Cultural institutions serve a different purpose than society’s other institutions, such as shopping malls, television and the event-driven entertainment industry. Each is a kind of conduit in society, and each does a different thing. And what I see as the potential for art institutions and other places of cultural production is that they serve in this particular area a kind of activity or engagement. I see artworks themselves as a bit further down the steps, because they normally deal with a specific kind of activity or activity “horizon.” With artworks, it’s on a much more personal or individual level, and it’s hard—and not always for the best—to make generalizations about what exactly is going on.
CG Let’s talk about how your work operates inside institutions. No one would think of calling your work institutional critique," but there is a very real sense that in your exhibitions the institution is being traversed by a set of external agendas. I’m thinking about these full-scale museum exhibitions like The mediated motion at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2001, where you charted a very definite course through the museum, causing the viewer to traverse ponds, floors of compressed earth and fog-filled rooms while ascending the four levels of the building. Today one could argue that institutions are so blown open that they no longer really exist. It would follow that instructional critique doesn’t make much sense anymore. Yet something much more radical seems to take place in your work, which doesn’t so much criticize institutions as completely remap them.
OE I agree that institutions don’t exist in the way that they used to, but I do think there continue to be structures and systems that govern the realm of experiencing art. Just because institutions are not the same anymore doesn’t mean that their autonomy is completely violated. Every museum has its own signature, and every time somebody walks through a museum he has to deal with that signature to look at the art. The museum’s signature can be its educational character or the sense of social responsibility that it feels to the community. In fact, the signature can be almost anything, and every museum does things differently. It is best when museums are open and transparent about their distinct signatures and techniques they employ. With my exhibitions I don’t go against the signature of the museum, but I do try to make people understand that the museum and its signature are also constructions. In fact, there are plenty of things that I could make visible in museums through more or less subversive means. People still tend to think that museums are only presenting the art, but in fact the ideology of display touches directly upon questions of responsibility: How do you organize history for people? How do you show the art of the last hundred years? Will the presentation be monographic or thematic? Of course, there is no right or wrong in this, and the responsible approach ties in being open about it and admitting that there is not necessarily one truthful way of showing art but simply how we choose to show it. Otherwise, it would be almost totalitarian, as if other people who had different approaches were somehow lesser people.
CG I’m struck by how social your turn of thought is and how concerned you are with the public. The word ideology seems to me a good one for describing the human constructions you have in mind, since otherwise the subjective components of experience that you explore could be seen as leading to “living inside your head,” to solipsism. Whereas the truth is almost the opposite: your work is more often about a kind of collective experience. At the Tate Modern, for example, it was amazing how the installation became the focus of a kind of mass experience, however much it was based on the subjectivity of perception. The mass character of the phenomenon was enhanced perhaps because the categories of the weather, which this work is based on, are also some of the most common tools for interpreting the natural world. You could say that humanity “cultivates” nature on a very basic level by applying the framework of the weather to it.
OE The subject of the weather covers a whole spectrum from sheer profanity to high philosophy, from a high degree of complexity (in the case of chaos theory, for example) to the mere fact of having to put on a raincoat to avoid getting sick with pneumonia. I would like to see The Weather Project at the Tate as raising a host of questions about how we see and experience ourselves and our institutions as such: about what art is in a museum, what a museum is in a city, what a city is in a country. I needed a very simple idea to establish a platform on which all these questions could be raised, and the weather provided it. In Latin, the weather is called tempo, which also means time, and time of course is a key factor in experience more generally. I also thought the weather would be very crucial and relevant to an art museum.
CG There seems to be an internal dynamism or essential instability to your work that compels you to employ ever-larger frames of reference, leading from objects to exhibitions and from exhibitions to institutions and then to even larger political and social frames such as city and country. In light of that instability or expansiveness, I’d be particularly interested to turn to where it all began—the very first piece you made that you consider to be part of your mature work.
OE One of the first things I did was simply project a window with a slide projector onto the wall, as if the sun were shining through my atelier. It was in art school, and the window appeared on the wall as if the sun were sitting low. Of course, my atelier was facing north, so there was never sun coming in, which thought was funny. It was a nice piece, or rather a small experiment. Regarding my work’s general trajectory, it was never really about objects, nor was it ever really about the critique of objects. In the beginning, the dematerialization of the object was so accepted that I could pretty much say that something was a work of art even though it was a situation or just a rainbow or fog and light. We had internalized John Cage and all those other precedents, and the result was that I was not being avant-garde at all but very mainstream. From there, I started to look at perception psychology and other modes of experiential and spatial conditions, like architecture. It was evident in the early and mid-1990s that, after postmodernity, ideas of immateriality and ephemerality had suddenly gained a whole new meaning. This was because of the way that phenomenology had introduced a new kind of relativity into our understanding of space. Thinkers like Henri Bergson seemed relevant again, and in 1996, ’97 and ’98 I was suddenly in a field where there was so much potential that it constituted a path I could follow.
CG I wanted to ask you about your experiences as an art student at the Royal Academy of Arts. That school has produced quite a number of interesting artists over the last 15 years.
OE The most interesting thing about the Academy is that it’s a six or seven year program; you’re not supposed to become an artist in just three or four years. You have to want to become an artist. It’s an almost anarchistic school in that you choose the things you want to learn, and you need to have quite a high working morale to go through the program, because you could basically sit around for six years and not do anything. The school is diverse on account of its not being very programmatic. It doesn’t teach this or that philosophy, this or that ideology.
CG We were talking earlier about the ethics of your work. On the one hand, there is the reception side and on the other there’s the production side. You obviously work with a team to produce most of the projects. When I learned about your process, I was interested to discover that even the thinking part of it is collaborative. You almost form a “think tank” with your collaborators, such as the architects Einar Thorsteinn and Sebastian Behmann.
OE We’re quite a distinct group. I try to push the process a lot in the beginning and a lot in the end. But in between we go through various stages. It’s very different from project to project, and it’s hard to say that there is actually a particular pattern or a standard path that we go through every time. Some people come in—a scientist on one project, an architect on another—to just do one thing. I also work with two or three different engineers, who of course have a lot to say about what materials can do and how much strength they have. I myself don’t know anything; I’m just trying to connect people.
CG Many of the pieces that result are functioning “machines,” but they are also quite aesthetic objects. The beauty of these objects seems to emerge from simply allowing their functionality to be clear. It is as if the clarity of the function dictates a certain form, and that form itself has an aesthetics to it.
OE Absolutely. If I were to try to turn the machine into a sculpture, the experience of it would be compromised. But then it’s hard to make an exact division between the two features of the work—the object and the machine—because sometimes the uncertainty about the role of the machine and the role of the viewer actually contributes to the experience. I tend to think of things very abstractly and avoid trying to sort it out completely.
CG In thinking about the early piece you described and the Tate Modern project, I’m reminded that one of the most consummately modern characters in English literature, Hamlet, complains of being “too much in the sun.” The phrase has an Oedipal resonance and is a pun — being too much the son — but it’s also about rejecting authority more generally. The sun always seems to come up when it’s a question of debunking authority and false gods.
OE It’s not particularly complicated: I’ve been interested in light for a long time, and the sun, of course, is the origin of all daylight. In the Tate installation, the sun ultimately dropped from the picture and became demystified. I noticed that kids looked first at the mirrors and then at the sun, whereas grown-ups usually looked first at the sun and then at the mirrors. The space was so long that most people, when they entered Turbine Hall, saw the sun as an image, and the space was reduced to a two-dimensional thing for them. Yet by the time they got to the end where the sun was, they wouldn’t look at it anymore because the sun had completely emptied itself as an image and the engagement now was on the engagement with the space. The sun was just a flat screen, and there was nothing very interesting about it.
CG This rejection of transcendence in favor of immanence is such a central dynamic in your work. Though I’ve been trying, consciously, to apply a Kantian framework to the work, it would seem that the philosopher Gilles Deleuze would be much closer to its spirit.
OE I feel much closer to Deleuze, of course, because fundamentally, Kant still believed in God.
CG I wanted to ask, what do you think you would have been if you weren’t an artist?
OE I don’t know. I’m not very good at anything. When I chose to be an artist, I was actually quite naive, because I thought that it meant getting out of society and was equivalent to abandoning the normal systems, including the system of production and consumption. I didn’t realize that art was just another inverted aspect of that whole game. I came to understand that later.
CG In a way, it has served you well to always have one foot outside.
OE Perhaps, but I don’t want to be the one to say it; it would seem arrogant. On the other hand, I do think it’s important to keep in mind that art cannot step outside the world and evaluate it. This idea of the meta-perspective, which is where we began the interview, would have been called stepping outside and having a fresh look at things 20 years ago. Today, “stepping outside” is rightly seen to be as much a part of the situation itself as the engagement with the actual thing. This has relevance both for art and for museums and, in particular, for society as a whole. Art and its institutions are not holy areas where you step out and all rules are off so that you can do weird things that you don’t have to account for. I think that having an art experience is stepping into the world, it is having reality.
—Chris Gilbert is curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. His writing on conceptual practices can be found in Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Collectivism after Modernism (forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press in 2005). In 2002-2003, Gilbert carried out extensive research into new European exhibition spaces, partly funded by a travel grant from the American Center Foundation.