Nature’s way of perceiving things

Olafur Eliasson explains how his work explores the way we see our surroundings


Born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, Olafur Eliasson is best known for large-scale works that, in recreating natural phenomena, ask viewers to reconsider how they perceive their daily environments. In the “Weather Project” (2003), Eliasson installed a blinding sun — made of hundreds of mono-frequency lamps — at one end of the cathedral-like Tate Modern Turbine Hall in London. And for the “New York City Waterfalls Project” (2008), he erected man-made waterfalls along the New York waterfront. However, such works are not merely spectacle: They emerge from deep consideration of how to create communal experiences that also allow for individual reflection.

Eliasson has been a frequent visitor to Japan in recent years, with site-specific commissions such as “Sunspace for Shibukawa,” a domelike observatory that turns sunlight into rainbow-hued, illusory sketches (unveiled at the Hara Museum ARC in Gunma Prefecture in October), and a solo exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo in 2005-06.

Even as his mid-career retrospective continues to tour the world, Eliasson has created a body of new works for his latest project in Japan, an exhibition entitled “Your Chance Encounter” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. Many of the works in the exhibition were created in response to the museum’s building, designed by the architecture firm SANAA. The Japan Times met with Eliasson at Hara Museum ARC and again in Kanazawa to discuss the ideas that inform his work.

Your best-known works recreate nature’s elements at monumental scale, but do you ever consider that there is an aspect of hubris involved in such projects?

Well it’s a discussion worth taking. I think with such works there is a different component that allows them to be accessible. For instance, with the “Waterfalls” the fact is that the water did actually fall. Monumental for me means that you try to avoid temporality. If you say something is spectacular it often refers to an instantaneous impression. But if you looked at the waterfall only for an instant, you wouldn’t have seen the water falling and, in that sense, time was integral to the work.

On top of that I think there was another element of promoting the individual experience that was important. Water falls, according to gravity, with the same speed everywhere. Of course big drops fall a little faster than small drops, but generally speaking, from looking at a waterfall and the speed of the falling water we could also see how far away it was. So the “Waterfalls” project was a way of measuring the size of something, because in terms of positioning you can [understand the relativity of perspective] if you are able to see the space between yourself and the waterfall. In all of my projects I hope to have this deconstructive element where it goes from being monumental in scale to being individual in experience.

I am very skeptical about the hubris component of something becoming dominating or normative or maybe even totalitarian. But I do not want to leave scale alone. I think you can do something ephemeral in a large scale — working with the sky, working with the ocean — without becoming normative.

In that sense your works have a certain ambiguity — or even emptiness — to them, as in “Wannabe” (1991), one of the older works here in Kanazawa, which comprises a single spotlight suspended from the ceiling.

Viewers bring their own use or purposefulness to each project. There might be a discrepancy between my purpose and their purpose, and I prefer to focus on their purposefulness. There is a history in art and architecture of insisting on the inherent purpose of a work, but for me it gets quite patronizing when you insist on sitting in a particular way on a chair or whatever. You can say what you want, but if people sit on the chair in a way different from how it was intended then that’s how the chair exists in the world. I think this relates to how we talk about our society, about democracy and about social and political values also.

Is that why your works tend toward a nonrepresentational format, to the degree that they’re not objects with a particular meaning?

My work is highly constructed or theatrical in the sense that it is clearly not reality. But there is potential in suggesting that reality is also staged. I think we should probably get used to the idea that there is nothing that is totally real except maybe being born, and also to die. But everything else is either more or less representational or more or less real.

We can never have a situation where there is not a degree of representation. The problem is not where you are in the spectrum between real and representation, the problem is when somebody — such as an architect or a sales person in a shopping mall — tells you that you are in one place because there might be some profitability in telling you that something is real, when it is in fact staged. For instance, a Levi’s shop might use ideas of authenticity to recreate the American prairie in a Japanese shopping mall. There you have a conflict between what they say and what they do. In a museum we can hope that this gap is smaller. I would like to suggest that in good art, there is no gap at all: It is what it is, and it says what it does.

In a very successful Japanese garden this can also happen because it is clear that everything is highly manicured. It’s not pretending to be natural; it allows everybody to know that it’s both natural and constructed. That’s why I like the [supporting] sticks holding up the tree branches, because you can see that the tree never had the idea of growing that way by itself.

Many of the works in this exhibition interact with the museum architecture, designed by the firm SANAA. What in particular made you respond to the building?

One thing I like about SANAA’s architecture is that it amplifies a sense of intimacy that speaks to the individual way of reading or feeling the rhythm of a building, but it also makes clear that you are sharing the space with other people. So you have the feeling that somebody else also made the choice to go into that space with you.

I think this is particularly successful in Kanazawa because people here seem to be animated by the architecture and there is a strong sense of shared space. Some architects, typically the more modern architects, tend to prioritize the concept of being alone. They follow a more spiritual definition of individuality with a hierarchy by which the more alone one feels, the better the space. But I think there is a contemporary strain in spatial thinking where collectivity is a very important component.

This particular building has unique potential in both being a container for many people and still allowing individual interpretations. I think, or would like to think, that my work can play with the same vocabulary in that it can be inclusive on a very intimate scale and yet you can have somebody looking at it or engaging next to you at the same time.

“Your Chance Encounter” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, runs till March 22. For more information, visit