Art and the Natural, Olafur Eliasson: Perceptions of Selected Work


“I think there is often a discrepancy between the experience of seeing and the knowledge or expectation of what we are seeing.” –Eliasson

There could be much said about the evolution of installation art since the first Duchamp “installation” in 1917. Installation was first documented by OED in 1969. It was coined in this context in reference to a form of art that had arguably existed since prehistory, but was not regarded as a discrete category until the mid-twentieth century. Installation art is essential in that it takes the viewer’s entire sensory experience into consideration, rather than the classical museum notion of a stationary piece of art on a pedestal or wall hangings. Olafur Eliasson has a keen understanding of how his installations will affect viewer’s sensory perceptions through the use of the “natural”, and through that understanding he has been able to produce work that has been unprecedented in the art curatorial and installation realm. He has been exemplary in bringing installations to that next level of perception.

The Weather Project, Eliasson’s wildly popular 2003–2004 installation at London’s Tate Modern, consisted primarily of the artist’s version of the sun and sky.

Upon walking into the massive hall, visitors saw a giant glowing disc suspended from the ceiling, an unmistakable representation of the sun. The light of this “sun” shone through a hazy mist, generated by humidifiers placed along the length of the hall. A glance at the ceiling revealed that it had been plastered with mirrors, reflecting the many visitors gathered far below. Upon closer examination, visitors could see that the “sun” was not actually circular; the artist had hung a half-circle of lights, which, when reflected in the mirrors on the ceiling, gave the impression of a complete circle. The hundreds of mirrors, applied in a jagged way rather than lying perfectly flat, gave the upper edges of the “sun” a rough, uneven appearance, making it look startlingly real. For those just entering the hall, the people already inside were silhouetted, appearing as dark figures against the bright yellow-orange light[1].

This installation garners the attention of a person’s senses through the application of environmental factors generated through his chosen technologies. Together, the applied technologies are able to integrate with the senses of the audience in the mediation of natural phenomena, which represents fog and sunlight entrapped in our atmosphere. It brings us closer to the imagined reality of the outdoors, but questions the way we see the installation. We see ourselves seeing through the outlined silhouettes in the installation– our expectations are brought to life within our mediated experiences, which Eliasson thinks is a positive thing:

“History is not an external and objectified in a situation but is inside the spectator. I expect the spectator to bring history or memory and culture with them. I take it for granted that the memory of the spectator is a part of the project. But it is very important to see that when the spectator comes to the site, the past of that particular person, or rather the memory of that person—to the extent that it is called on through recognition in the installation—is “now”. So that even the past and the expectation of the future will be “now”. What interests me is there is often a discrepancy between the experience of seeing and the knowledge or expectation of what we are seeing.”[2]

The spectator’s ability to see the outlines silhouettes in the installation brings the opportunity to see yourself seeing, which creates an impression the subject and vice-versa. In regards to affect, the ability for this work to stimulate our internal senses and see them projected in the installation was a key success to this installation.

Overall, Eliasson’s work seems to assert that contemporary art is more than activating rods and cones in the brain. Art has progressed to affect the entire body of the viewer. He believes “immersive environments, sculptures, and photographs elegantly recreate the extremes of landscape and atmosphere in his native Scandinavia, while foregrounding the sensory experience of the work itself”[3]. Eliasson draws on the natural elements of light, earth, fire, air, and water in order to focus on the ventral themes of nature, natural processes and the (transformed) understanding of nature and the natural environment [4]. For example, in The Weather Project, he uses light to create installations which are intended to demonstrate physical processes and/or, as atmospheric spaces, to appeal to the subjective experience of the viewer setting his gaze in motion,

“I am particularly interested in the relationship between the visitor, and the environment in which he finds himself. […] For me, the central issue is this relationship, this dedication, or a confrontation with this particular space as a scientific subject.”[5]

Olafur Eliasson radicalizes the relation between artwork and the viewer by enveloping the viewer in a light setting in many of his works, which lends itself to in visual terms of perception. The viewer becomes an integral part of the work (light is ‘pasted’ onto the viewer’s skin and clothes) and an active physical element in time and space in motion within the works boundaries. were primarily based with water, such as the ephemeral New York City Waterfalls, 2008, the role of water within the city was a centrifugal point in his exploration of this project. In his online interviews, Eliasson talks about the space needed to experience such a phenomenon[6].  He also stresses the importance for people to create that connection with the water landscape, which he believes is largely ignored by those who inhabit New York City. Expectation played a role in how the public perceived them, through the disclosure and press release of the installation. About 1.4 million people visited the four waterfalls and the reception was viewed positively as it was estimated that the falls had a 69 million dollar impact from the tourism. Such installations become alluring phenomena due in part to the inherent unnaturalness that the installation possesses.  “In developing The New York City Waterfalls, I have tried to work with today’s complex notion of public spaces,” said Eliasson[7].  And more importantly, “We see nature with our cultivated eyes. Again there is no truthful nature, there is only your and my construct of such.[8]

Merleau-Ponty explains how we can bind together our perception of the world with a sense of belonging and unity in all things:

Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is presupposed by them. The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not ‘inhabit’ only ‘the inner man’ or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself. When I return to myself from an excursion into the realm of dogmatic common sense or of science, I find, not a source of intrinsic truth, but a subject destined to the world (xi–xii).

According to Merleau-Ponty, our instantaneous perception and receptivity to all things is the condition through which we become a more integral part of environment. Merleau-Ponty offers us this method of viewing the world and therefore the power to understand how we can exist in a participatory exchange of forces with nature. In this way phenomenalism supplies a new rhetoric in which we find shadows of the ideas that catalyzed environmentalism in the twentieth century, while rejecting formal rationalist constructions of man as separate from nature[9]. In this sense, Eliasson is bringing the natural to the exhibition viewer through these mediated senses, and in doing so unites the ideas of how humans interact with natural phenomena and witness man-made natural phenomena, such as in many of Eliasson’s works. Rethinking man’s perception of nature is fundamentally important to our continued success of the future, reanalyzing the role of man within nature and surroundings. Eliasson’s work demonstrated that through the fabrication of the natural, people still gravitate towards it and in their perceived senses, they might find their more instinctive feelings of awe, which have been suppressed in societies norms of how nature should be perceived. However, since perception is unreliable, we take into consideration the different senses and how they have been affected, and then they are perceived immediately. In analysis of what has been seen, an individual’s perception of the installation is unified philosophically. It also is highly dependant on social contexts, which is where subjectivity comes into consideration. The real is an important factor of Eliasson’s work. For example, he writes:

Objects such as houses or artworks are one variety, but we also find models of engagement, models of perception and reflection. In my artistic practice I work both with analogue and digital models, models of thought and other experiments that add up to a model of a situation[10].

Through those techniques of engagement he is able to demonstrate the ability of his works to affect the real, and consequently, everything else becomes periphery to our consciousness. The slip between the things we perceive and the unconscious attention to our perceptions was demonstrated for me in the work that was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, called Take Your Time, and called 360° room for all colours, 2002. In this installation, Eliasson created a room that while present in the room, and close to the walls, all perception of space is lost. The white circular wall with the projected light becomes a space that visually never ends when the viewer steps close enough to the containing structure. Man’s color perception and discrimination vary in varying lighting conditions[11]. The use of color allowed for a visually appealing ambience and allowed for that perception loss of the actual space around you.

This was very perceptually engaging because the loss of space created affect, the mediation of the senses and perception occurred while I was physically experiencing the exhibition, and the room appeared to infinitely stretch into a distance. Most importantly, I experienced the color-space continuum, however, I never fully entered because mediated vision. I used my imagination to hold myself there, experienced the void in my perception, and there became a vanishing point and the spatial analogy entered my mind– the non-space through which one experiences phenomenology of color embodied in the exhibition.

Olafur Eliasson has been elemental and prolific in the incorporation and adaptation of installation techniques. He dematerializes his objects in the works he produces, and through that dematerialization visitors are able to focus less on the objects and assert attention on the process of observation itself. The context of his work is applied phenomenology, thus the spaces enveloped by his techniques and that phenomena become one. The viewers’ potential to affect themselves in the work of art is essential.

[2] Olafur, Eliasson. Olafur Eliasson: Your Only Real Thing Is Time. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2001. Print.

[4] Olafur, Eliasson, Gijs . Tuyl, and Holger Broeker. Olafur Eliasson: Your Lighthouse : Works with Light 1991-2004. Ostfilden-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004. Print.

[5] Olafur Eliasson, “Just life in Pop Art, I steal natural phenomena and scientific representations: A conversation with Dieter Buchart,” Kunstforum International (November/December 2003), pp. 195.

[8] Olafur Eliasson, ‘Seeing yourself sensing’, published in: ‘Projects 73’: Olafur Eliasson. Leaflet edited by The Museum of Modern Art. New York 2001.

[10] Eliasson, Olafur. “Models are Real.” In Models: 306090 Books, Volume 11. Edited by Emily Abruzzo, Eric Ellingsen and Jonathan D. Solomon. New York: 306090, Inc., 2007: 18-25.

[11] Pettersson, Rune. “Cultural Differences in the Perception of Image and Color in Pictures.” Educational Communication and Technology: a Journal of Theory, Research, and Development. 30.1 (1982): 43-53

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