Olafur Eliasson | It Could Be Said That Unity Is a Fantasy, That Fantasy an Act of Unification
Rivers suddenly flowing neon green. No one knows why, yet. At the Tate Modern a sun has seemingly been captured and bottled in a building. Pilgrims paying tribute lie basking in its glow, and hundreds of feet above them they see their own silhouetted reflections waving like vain angels. New York City wakes up on a June day in 2008 to find four waterfalls have sprouted from towering scaffolds in the gritty East River. Each of these strange visions had one pronounced effect: gathering the fractured, cometary shards of wandering consciousness belonging to the disparate citizens of a city and luring them into shared contemplation of one striking, secular, provocative moment of attention and beauty.
Today, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, the presence behind the above unworldly interventions, paces like a caged tiger in the palatial lobby of the Marciano Art Foundation on Wilshire Boulevard. He’s nervous. Couldn’t stomach a breakfast. He has delivered fantasies before—beguiling elemental combinations of light, space, color—and today he hopes to do it again. This is the moment that he has been waiting for, when his work is completed through the process of public engagement. Soon the doors will open to the cavernous theater in which his latest project, Reality projector, has been installed, and among the crowd of awed art-beat journos and critics the artist himself will be watching carefully.
It’s been a long time coming. Eliasson knew as soon as he saw the rugged, half-demolished Masonic Temple, now reborn as a dramatic contemporary arts mecca thanks to the Marciano brothers, that he had to do something with the space. “When I first came it was a construction site. Everything was torn apart, exposed. It was interesting to see this secretive building made suddenly transparent,” he reflects. “I was very intrigued by the quality of the space even though it was a little bit brutal, with these huge beams and the scale of the space being so vast. I was very interested in seeing if I could create a contemplative dimension in this grand structure. The fact that I saw it as a construction site first definitely influenced the show, with the scale of the building being one of the narratives.”
Eliasson exudes a patient Nordic thoughtfulness. With a salt-and-pepper beard matched by dramatically swept-back hair he looks the part of a puckish, conventionally handsome intellectual. He chooses his words carefully. His eyes, quick and clever and warm, scan his surroundings constantly from behind thick glasses, hoovering up visual information. He has strong opinions on color and light.We’re sitting in front of a dramatic stained glass window through which the sunshine of an LA spring day pours forth, scattering rich gems of color across the table. It captures his attention repeatedly (“This— this is real color”). For connoisseurs of light, LA is a lovely place to be. “When I come, I always spend time by the ocean. The Pacific, it just has something that is so fundamentally different than the light qualities that you have in Germany or Iceland—it is so special. One thing that always strikes me is that the sky is just so big here. That is so unusual.”
Two paired philosophies drive much of Eliasson’s work: collaboration and shared experience. He often teams up with architects, musicians, and other artists as he creates his pieces—Reality projector features “music” (more sound art than song, reminiscent of some of John Cage’s more outré prepared piano work played in slow motion) made up of sounds that Eliasson recorded and then sent to Icelandic musician Jónsi, from Sigur Rós, to arrange.
His command center and base of operations is a huge studio in Berlin where he employs over 90 people, “from craftsmen and specialized technicians, to architects, archivists and art historians, web and graphic designers, film- makers, cooks, and administrators,” who work with Eliasson to “develop, produce, and install artworks, projects, and exhibitions, as well as on experimentation, archiving, research, publishing, and communications.”
This studio is where Reality projector first came together, as Eliasson worked with his team to refine the concept, even building a scale model of the final set-up, large enough to walk through and experience. It’s a model that diverges notably from the art-world fetishization of the singular visionary—Eliasson flaunts his collaborative process rather than hiding it behind a curtain à la Jeff Koons.
The second philosophy, of shared experience, is perhaps the most important. In an era of exclusion and isolationism, where walls are being erected everywhere and we are constantly being divided from one another, Eliasson believes art can offer a balm for the chapped global soul, a chance for unification. “I think that trust within our society is on the decline, and the effect is polarization,” Eliasson explains. “I see the culture sector as a place where trust is there and where it can be nurtured— not just artists but literature, music, theatre, and education. The culture sector has space for reinterpreting identity and challenging the us vs. them mentality, establishing a sense of 'we-ness.'”
There are not a lot or places where “we” is being reinvented. We look at the public or political sphere and you have a lot of polarization coming out of that which is completely counterproductive to the notion of “we.” And the private sector is obviously more interested in the private sector and its own profitability and so on. Art has a space that allows for asking questions that are hard to ask in other spaces.
”It’s that type of space that Eliasson sets out to create, a place for people to come together and experience something as “we” without being sold to or coerced or persuaded—a shared moment of contemplation in the face of beauty. You see it in all his greatest projects, the ability of art to pry us away from our normal “temporally interlocked routines,” as he says; the creation of an experience where our normal programmed social behavior can be set aside and we can, without self-consciousness, enjoy a moment for its own sake.
You see it in “The Weather Project,” where masses of stoic sun-starved Londoners lie together on the floor of the Tate Modern, waving like babies, lolling in the light. It’s in the hushed awe that overtook the gathered crowds of New York, people from all possible walks of life and origins, as they gazed together at a waterfall pouring into the East River. And it’s what he hopes will happen today, with Reality projector.
The doors open, but gratification is delayed as you’re asked to spend 20 seconds in an anteroom so that your eyes can adjust to the darkness. A bemused employee eyes a stopwatch. 20 seconds up, you’re permitted to pull the curtain aside and enter.
The room is gargantuan, with soaring ceilings. Up ahead you see ravishing blocks of Eliasson’s prized “pure color” drifting like icebergs slowly across a huge screen. They are produced by projecting high-intensity pure white light through colored gels of magenta, yellow, and blue, which span the triangles in the mammoth truss structure along the ceiling. The two projectors move back and forth along the ceiling, striking different angles through the gels, sometimes combining blue and yellow to make green, layering color over shadow in an ever-shifting array.
The primary effect is what is happening on the screen, but there are all sorts of ancillary effects—pallid, aqueous light back-reflected from the gels spilling on to the walls, murky images of dark color reflecting off the concrete floor. The room becomes a part of the piece, the guts of the trusses shadowed onto the screen and the upper reaches of the theater, usually ignored, lit up with colorful light. The soundtrack bumps and scrapes and clangs with an Icelandic glacial slowness, sounding at times like a curated selection of sounds from the LA streetscape, at others like the noises you might hear in a creaking ship’s hold.
It’s beautiful and momentous, but it’s not complete until people fill the theater. Only with human figures silhouetted in front of the screen does the scale become apparent. And then it happens, the moment Eliasson hoped for: small groups sit on the floor, leaning back on their arms and taking in the imagery. Awed spectators amble about, daring themselves to get closer and closer to the screen, finally abandoning self-consciousness and walking right up to it. Strangers murmur to each other—pretty neat, huh?—and then go their separate ways. A crowd of people, separate but together, becoming a “we” in the face of a singular experience. Eliasson wanders the room grinning from ear to ear. For a brief moment in a theater off Wilshire, the fantasy of unity is realized.
Written by Sid Feddema