Expanding Environments

A river runs through it: Olafur Eliasson’s immersive installation, Riverbed, takes over the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, for the museum’s first solo exhibition of his impressive oeuvre.

Those who visited Tate Modern in 2003 may not remember the name of the artist, but all remember the work: the huge, glowing fake sun rising in a mist within the concrete 150-foot Turbine Hall. Entitled The Weather Project, this is perhaps Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s (b. 1967) most popular museum show and, within the UK, the most well-known of his works. Eliasson is set to change this with his current solo exhibition at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk. Riverbed, the main work for the exhibition, was specifically conceived of and created for Louisiana. Situated in the south wing of the museum, Eliasson re-creates a rocky riverbed, replete with running water, which the viewer can move on and through. Riverbed, like The Weather Project, places the viewer in an environment made unrecognisable through the recreation of natural phenomena inside a man-made structure. Presented alongside a selection of other pieces, including the ever-evolving Model Room (2003), this is the museum’s first solo show of Eliasson’s work.

Riverbed is audacious, bold, and above all innovative: words that can be applied to Eliasson’s practice in general. His art both defies and exalts nature: dyeing rivers in various cities green with Green River Project (1998-2001); importing large chunks of glacial ice from Iceland’s largest glacier Vatnajökull for an immersive indoor installation in Your waste of time (2006); constructing four artificial waterfalls in New York City’s East River, each pumping 35,000 gallons of water per minute over their frames, in The New York City Waterfalls (2008); these works are epic in their technical complexity as well as final realisation. Eliasson’s projects, which are always necessarily collaborative, highlight the natural environment and phenomena in everyday life. With New York City Waterfalls, he stated he had “given New Yorkers back their river”; Eliasson is not deifying himself, but simply articulating the fact through the project, he has heightened awareness about the geography of the city. The East River became not just a mode of transport, something to be crossed, or a demarcating boundary – but a thing of beauty. By artificially transforming the water into a waterfall he heightened its natural power and importance. This is the essence of his work and is similar in approach to Bulgarian-born artist Christo, who famously wrapped in fabric large-scale natural and man-made formations, most notably the coast of Little Bay, Sydney, Australia (1969), a feat of organisation, planning, implementation and financing of that transformed this natural landmark. Shrouded in fabric and rope, more than two and a half kilometers of coast and cliff formations was covered, and became one of the largest single artworks ever made. Eliasson’s art may not be on this monumental scale but he, like Christo, creates environmental projects that surpass what we traditionally conceive to be possible.

Riverbed posed many difficulties and Mathias Ussing Seeberg, curator at the museum, argues that the work would be difficult to display anywhere other than the Louisiana. The work came out of discussions between Eliasson and museum director Poul Erik Tøjner, discussions that centred on the idea of creating large-scale site-specific work in the south wing of the museum. Eliasson describes his artistic process in a 2004 interview with Joachim Bessing: “Before I build a model in my studio, or have one built, I enter into a kind of dialogue with the exhibition’s location. Research begins. Ideas and problems arise. I look for various solutions. The models come from this process. In principle, this is completely classical.” Such an approach is essential given the incredible technical complexity of his pieces. The New York City Waterfalls required over 100 people – technicians, scientists, studio assistants, engineers – just for its fabrication and ultimate realisation.

The Louisiana, with its very particular architecture reflecting the landscape on which it is built, posed additional difficulties as well as new possibilities. The building unfolds on the landscape rather than dominating it: where there is a slope, there are stairs, a flat stretch of grass, a glass hallway. Indeed the internal space is something to be experienced only in the act of moving through it. As Seeberg points out: “The Louisiana is very well known for its meandering architecture; you can’t take it in from one position as you would be able to with the Guggenheim in New York, where you sort of understand the idea of the museum when you see it from the outside. With the Louisiana it’s different: you have to walk through it to understand it. It’s a museum where your body is very present and active in experiencing space.”

The museum’s architecture is very similar to Eliasson’s work; he constantly demands the viewer’s active participation and engagement. One of his first projects, Beauty (1993), was an artificial rainbow produced in a gallery space that could only be observed from a particular position in relation to the spotlight aimed at a veil of mist. The very ephemeral mood of the work, capturing an intangible element of nature, magnifies it to heroic proportions. Eliasson explains that its inherent uniqueness is derived from the fact that every person sees a different rainbow, due to their exact location in relation to the light, the drop of water, and their own eyes. This fascination with the relationship between light and atmosphere runs throughout his oeuvre though sometimes on a more subtle scale, as with his current exhibition at Tate Britain: Turner Colour Experiments. Inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner, Eliasson has created seven large circular paintings, each based on a specific work by Turner. Isolating the individual colours in each painting, he created a circular spectrum of colours, a colour wheel, for each of the chosen paintings. Turner used his subject as the medium to depict his explorations into colour and light, whereas Eliasson uses the medium as the subject in order to do the same. Critic Adrian Searle, in his 2003 Guardian review of The Weather Project, heralded this yet-to-be realised work when he wrote: “I think, inevitably, of Turner’s purported dying exclamation that ‘the sun is God’.” Searle saw the connection and the relationship between the two.

Eliasson considers his first artistic work to be his breakdancing, a form of expression which he discovered at the age of 14, and continued with through his youth (going on to win the Scandinavian breakdancing championship two years in a row). This initiated a continuing fascination with movement. Seeberg states: “He wants people to be active, and understand their activity, whether it be mental activity or physical activity, as completely essential and natural in meeting with art but also in society as a whole.” The way people move through space, interacting with natural and man-made environments, is the subject of three films that will be presented at Louisiana: Innen Stadt Aussen (2010), Movement Microscope (2011) and Your embodied garden (2013). Each of the films uses dance choreography to accentuate bodily movement and draw attention to the physical spaces that the dancers move through. These films are based on Eliasson’s description of the human body as a “drawing machine”; as the body moves it sketches the surrounding space.

In the case of Movement Microscope, Eliasson’s Berlin studio actually becomes the stage, with the dancers moving through the studio in a carefully choreographed routine emphasising the repetitive movements of work. Seeberg describes Eliasson as a scientist of sorts, who is intent on understanding and examining the world we live in, he says: “This act of dancing in an office-like environment, you see it as if under a microscope: everyday life and routines are seen as choreography.” For Your embodied garden, Eliasson takes a Chinese garden as the stage, the dancer responds to the meticulous design and its architecture is what dictates the form of the resulting dance routine. This is the crux of Eliasson’s work, says Seeberg: “The way he moves and makes people move is affected by what surrounds him.”

With Riverbed, the act of walking on the slippery, uneven surface produces a new experience for every viewer. It is an active engagement, looking down, making sure your foot is on a stable piece of rock, anticipating the next step; you are fully aware of the surface and your surroundings. The act of walking has been the subject of many artists’ work, most famously that of Richard Long. Long’s interest, however, lies in the individual’s actions made visible on the landscape, rather than the depiction or recreation of a landscape. Eliasson’s treatment is more populist: his fascination lies in the general interaction between individual and nature, rather than the specific engagement with it. There is an element of the surreal with Riverbed, for as much as it is the recreation of the natural environment there is nothing natural about it: there is no sign of life. This is a post-apocalyptic environment, unsettling for its semblance of the natural within the museum’s white walls. Moving through the space reinforces this feeling, as the viewer expects to see the river to open up directly onto the landscape at some point, but it never does.

His practice is similar in intent to that of many of the Land art and Light artists coming out of the 1960s and 1970s (Nancy Holt, Robert Irwin, Long, Robert Smithson, James Turrell), who took public space and appropriated it, transforming the environment into something novel and often sculptural This engagement with natural conditions and phenomena necessitated the dematerialisation of the art object and the extension of the “gallery” site for art. Robert Smithson, in a 1969 interview with PA Narvell, describes this extension as cyclical rather than finite: “The scale between indoors and outdoors, and how the two are impossible to bridge … There is the dialectic between inner and outer, closed and open, centre and peripheral. This pattern just goes on constantly permuting itself into this endless doubling.”

With Riverbed, we are questioning the walls of the building and what they contain. The Louisiana no longer exists as an architectural edifice displaying artworks, but instead becomes part of the structure of the exhibits.

This fluid intercourse between site and artwork has been taken even further by James Turrell with his Skyspace series, which he defines as: “A specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture.” His most famous example is perhaps Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona that Turrell has been transforming into a large-scale artwork since 1972. Replete with tunnels, pathways, rooms and openings, the “artwork” changes constantly according to the sky’s natural light and the movement of the sun: a sunrise or sunset might completely change the viewer’s perception of their surroundings. As Turrell depends on light, so does Eliasson in many of his works, with both artists emphasising the subjective element of how we experience it. Where Riverbed reminds the viewer of what lies outside the gallery walls, the Skyspaces remove the barriers between the outside and inside, and so creating a direct unity between the two.

For Eliasson, who was born to Icelandic parents in Copenhagen, the environment of his youth is the source of inspiration in his work. His father, a cook and a part-time artist, gave him art lessons in addition to his schoolwork. His parents split up when he was four and his father moved back to Iceland, with Eliasson spending his summer holidays in its remarkable landscapes. His vacations in the countryside gave him an intimacy with Iceland, which becomes most noticeable through his photographs. Contact is Content (2014), the artist’s book of landscape photographs taken in Iceland, illustrates Eliasson’s direct engagement with that environment. The scenery is both subject and muse: a database of phenomena and observations that he can use as a source of material for other artworks. This, along with other artist’s books by Eliasson, will be presented at the Louisiana, adding greater context and depth to what is known of his practice.

This exhibition reveals Eliasson as a practitioner with no limits or fear of what can be done or used in the creation of art, and this is to be lauded. This is precisely what the exhibition achieves. Olafur Eliasson: Riverbed runs until 4 January, 2015. Please visit www.louisiana.dk for further details.

Niamh Coghlan