SPIEGEL Interview With Danish Artist Olafur Eliasson 'Museums Are Too Elitist'

Celebrated Danish artist Olafur Eliasson talks about his love-hate relationship with his adopted home city, Berlin, his gigantic waterfall spectacle on the East River in New York, which is expected to attract millions of viewers, and the pitfalls of success.

Olafur Eliasson has Icelandic roots but divides his time between Berlin and Copenhagen, his hometown.

Olafur Eliasson has Icelandic roots but divides his time between Berlin and Copenhagen, his hometown.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Eliasson, the people who work for you include architects, craftsmen, engineers, art historians, archivists -- even two cooks who take turns feeding your team. How many people are responsible for your schedule?

Eliasson: I can still handle that myself. But I know what you're getting at. The demand is, in fact, enormous, and in recent years I've had to learn to say no.

SPIEGEL: How often does that happen?

Eliasson: I can't even handle five percent of the inquiries. In the past, I just turned down offers I didn't like, but today time constraints even prevent me from agreeing to proposals that interest me deeply. If I have the choice of traveling to Russia, India or New Zealand alone for a week for preliminary discussions or to spend that week with my family, I routinely choose my family.

SPIEGEL: Probably not at the moment. First you have the show at the MoMA in New York, then the gigantic waterfall project on New York's East River, and in the interim you'll be publishing a tome about your art and opening a show at a Berlin gallery.

Eliasson: It does sound like I had planned some sort of meta-project, but that isn't the case. I would have preferred to do the waterfall in 2007, but it was simply too big and it took time. One hundred and twenty people are involved in the project.

SPIEGEL: If your schedule is so tight, why do you treat yourself to the luxury of living in Copenhagen and Berlin?

Eliasson: It certainly isn't an optimal situation. But we have two small children, and we want them to grow up in Denmark. Childcare is better there, and the standards are higher. That's the one reason. The other reason is that my wife and I adopted both children from Africa, and there is a pronounced and palpable phobia of dark-skinned people in Berlin. The two of them are often in Berlin, but living here would be different.

SPIEGEL: Why don't you move your studio to Copenhagen?

Eliasson: It would be very complicated. The people who work for me have their families here. I myself have already spent a third of my life in Germany, first in Cologne and then, since 1994, in Berlin. But the children have changed my outlook somewhat.

SPIEGEL: A seminal period erupted in Berlin in the 1990s, and it greatly benefitted artists and gallery owners. Were you in the right place at the right time?

Eliasson: When I moved here, there was no market at all, nor was there any chance of a market materializing. The real goal then was to experiment…

SPIEGEL: You wanted to turn the Spree River a fluorescent green.

Eliasson: It wasn't possible, unfortunately, but other than that those years really were special. I have some regrets that I didn't enjoy them as consciously as I could have. So much seemed possible in Berlin. But I believe the city could have benefited more than it did from the creative energy that collected here. Opportunities were wasted.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

Eliasson: It's hardly even noticeable that so many artists, designers and architects live here. It isn't reflected in the cityscape or in the museums. Many of the artists, for example, exhibit around the world, just not in Berlin. There is a successful gallery scene here, but the museums don't even try to cultivate relationships.

SPIEGEL: You became successful nonetheless. According to the "Art Compass" in the German business magazine Capital, you are in the top ten of the world's most successful artists…

Eliasson: …Oh come on! No one I know takes these rankings seriously.

SPIEGEL: You can certainly smile about it. You're at the top of those rankings.

Eliasson: And I would have found it amusing if I was elsewhere. I don't know a single collector or museum director who says: Oh, he's on a list, so I think I'll buy something of his. The people who buy my art put a little more thought into it than that.

SPIEGEL: And you are about to embark on your final victory march in America. No one will be able to overlook your four gigantic waterfalls, up to 40 meters (131 feet) high, in the East River.

Eliasson: Well, people who want to see everything will have to travel all the way across the city. We're installing these waterfalls in very different parts of New York -- under the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. The water will generate a true fog everywhere, and the pumps will be very loud. After all, real waterfalls make a lot of noise.

SPIEGEL: But why does the city need its own Niagara Falls?

Eliasson: I was interested in bringing life to a space that constitutes a non-space in New York, a space that simply doesn't count. Wall Street is traditionally more important there that the water. In other words, I wanted to draw attention to something that has always been there and yet goes largely unnoticed.

SPIEGEL: Do you always emphasize strong sensations?

Eliasson: Yes, because physical experience makes a much deeper impression than a purely intellectual encounter. I can explain to you what it's like to feel cold, but I can also have you feel the cold yourself through my art. My goal is to sensitize people to highly complex questions.

SPIEGEL: You create sculptures out of ice or light, water and plants. The mechanisms of perception are your real subject. Are you a frustrated scientist?


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