‘It makes a difference to make art’

Artist Olafur Eliasson gave a wonderful lecture in front of a packed auditorium at the NAi on Tuesday evening, March 5, 2007. Luckily, he didn’t talk about the announced theme – ‘structure’ as one of the seven pillars of architecture – but 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 at the Tate Modern – a shining sun that was occasionally obscured by mist – was repeatedly shown by various speakers during the Projective Landscape conference last year. That’s no coincidence, because his work is not only often highly architectural but also, and more importantly, critical about consumer society.

Born and raised in Copenhagen, Olafur Eliasson moved to Berlin to establish himself as an artist soon after finishing art school. His studio now employs forty people, twelve of whom are trained architects. He started his lecture by telling how his thinking is rooted in the ideas that circulated in the art scene in the early 1990s. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze disempowered the autonomous object and the fetishism of it to make everything far more relative. The relating and relativistic object would move his work to the ‘user’. That’s how Eliasson summarised his own development.

The bulk of the lecture featured a long series of projects completed by the artist since the early 1990s and some that are planned for the future. His work may be diverse, but several themes keep cropping up, such as ‘pure nature’, the ‘colour spectrum’, ‘light’ and the ‘mobius-ring.’ The quantity of projects is impossible to summarise 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 of the increasingly museum-like character of European inner cities. A city like Stockholm (just like 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 added fiercely, such a project is not possible since 9-11.

After a colour experiment with the public – ‘look for 8 seconds at this green point’, and its after-image will appear blue – he came to the second theme in his work: raw nature. In Berlin he exhibited some man-size chunks of ice that he imported from Iceland. The ice, 15,000 years old, was beautifully contaminated with debris from an Icelandic volcano. The ice contains a lot of information about Iceland, Eliasson said. But more important was that the blocks were exhibited at -7 degrees Celsius, so a ‘mediated experience’ emerged. ‘People found it depressing and at the same time beautiful. So that made it melancholic,’ he joked.

After a series of light-experiments, sound-experiments, and light-sound-experiments Eliasson came to an angled, kaleidoscopic pavilion. He explained the irregular form by saying, ‘I play with my computer’. The designs were programmed parametrically by the programmers in his studio, he explained, and form a study into spaces without perpendicular, right angles. Next slide: an oval-shaped sun overlooks the skyline of the Dutch city of Utrecht. Illuminated from behind, the canvas 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 concluded contentedly. A bigger version of this sun would appear later in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.

Tension mounted at this point in the lecture as Eliasson announced his most important current project: a concept car for BMW. But the PowerPoint images he showed a little later were a disappointment. Tied over the body of a BMW Z8 was a textile with icicles hanging from it. ‘They are increasingly unhappy about it,’ he said of his client. But it is about the relation between the automotive industry and global warming.

Eliasson’s spaces are about ‘people’ and ‘consequences’, as he says somewhat bombastically. Everything is about that. You have to provide people with direct feedback. Rooms have to be performative. ‘Who in our society shows some trajectories of criticality?’ Eliasson continued. ‘There are only very few places in the world that are not affirmative (to the market-place).’ That’s all he gave 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 complained. Working with museums and architects, Eliasson said that architects are by far the most difficult to work with.

A museum has to be relational, Eliasson thinks, just like art. Consumer society is not relational. A new product has to replace an existing one, as if it had never existed. He himself designed an alteration to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington in which he ‘related’ different parts to one another with a fully glazed exterior ramp. The glass wall undulates because otherwise one wouldn’t experience that one was actually moving. ‘Maybe too dogmatic’, he already noted luckily. It’s clear that art doesn’t become architecture just like that.

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’ based on engagement with reality. Not socialist, not left wing or right wing, but providing people with a sense that their lives matter, 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 I asked Olafur Eliasson over a drink if there are any critical architects around today. His answer was 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 or time for a conversation hardly exists. With Rem Koolhaas he summarises ‘the architect’: ‘If you don’t say something interesting, in five seconds his attention is gone.’

In theory a building is the largest possible art installation, asserts Eliasson. Architecture, however, is not art, but a consumer product. What is promising is how more and more architects seem to find design inspiration in art. Take a look at the work of Herzog & de Meuron, for instance, or the work of Claus & Kaan here in the Netherlands.