Danish Artist Olafur Eliasson: 'The Reality We Live in Is Our Own Construction'

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, best known for building waterfalls in New York and a giant sun in London, opens his first major show in Berlin this week. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Eliasson talks about how the artist can bring about social evolution and why a room full of colored smoke can change your life.

Photo Gallery: Eliasson's 'Natural Magic' Photos
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Artist Olafur Eliasson has had a strong connection to the city of Berlin for many years, having had a studio here since 1995, but until now the Danish-born artist has never held a major exhibition in the German capital.

This week, though, the artist, who is world famous for thought-provoking spectacles like life-sized waterfalls in New York in 2008 and a giant sun in the Tate Modern in London in 2003, opens "Innen Stadt Aussen" ("Inner City Out") in the historic Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in central Berlin. The exhibition opens on Wednesday with a selection of both older pieces and new artworks made especially for the show.

Eliasson describes the exhibition as "very personal" due to his ongoing relationship with Berlin. At a press conference Monday, he told reporters how he moved to the city four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "It was very inspiring because you never knew how the city would change," said Eliasson, who was born in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents. "It was a very important time for me. Unlike in Scandinavia at the time, it felt like the artist had a voice here."

Although the exhibition opens officially this week, it has in fact, already been happening, in bits and pieces, around the city for the past few months. At one stage Eliasson had a van with a mirrored side driving around the city filming urban reflections. Smaller mirrors and bicycles with mirrored wheels placed around the city have offered further cause for contemplation, as has the mysterious appearance of pieces of Icelandic driftwood on pavements, roundabouts and parking areas.

This week, the exhibition moves indoors. New pieces include a massive kaleidoscope, called "Mikroskop," that takes up most of the interior of the Martin-Gropius-Bau's atrium, reaching up to the skylight, as well as a hall of multi-colored smoke so dense that the visitor cannot see the way out. Another exhibit features a stream of water whipping threateningly to and fro in a darkened room beneath a strobe light, to beautiful effect.

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Eliasson about the exhibition and his relationship to Berlin.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Eliasson, you have said that part of the reason you liked working on this exhibition was because of all the empty spaces in Berlin. When you are working with mirrored trucks and leaving random Icelandic logs on traffic islands, does that quality make it easier to put on an exhibition like this?

Olafur Eliasson: I don't think one can talk about it in definite terms, as in: Is the space open or closed? But I think a lack of city management at one stage, and the lack of privatization of public spaces, means there is a lot of space in Berlin that is not spoken for. It might not be so obvious when you live here, but if you go to Munich or London, you notice that everything has a different intensity. Berlin is a rare bird in that sense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think Berlin is changing now?

Eliasson: Definitely. In the past Berlin was much more radical and extreme and now it's becoming much more of a conventional European city.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've been living and working here for a long time now, and you say that Berlin's special character was inspiring to you. So does this change toward a more conventional metropolis upset you?

Eliasson: The fact that the city is changing does not make me sad. Every city is always changing, on its own trajectory. But what does make me sad is that in the 1990s the city planners did not see the potential of that openness. They did not see it as an asset, they saw it as a problem. Unfortunately that resulted in monster projects like Potsdamer Platz. (Editor's note: Berlin's Potsdamer Platz square was an urban wasteland during the Cold War but was redeveloped after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is now home to entertainment and shopping complexes as well as residential buildings.) That place is like something you could find in any European city. Considering its history, the fact that the city planners chose to do something so generic is sad to me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Although you now spend a lot of time in Copenhagen, your studio is still here in Berlin. It employs around 35 people, many of whom work on your art with you. Do you ever worry about the authorship of your works?

Eliasson: No. I have always been very explicit about the fact that there is this great team of people in the studio. And I do not think making art alone makes it any better than making it with a team of people. On the other hand, I am the one who puts the questions that we initially work around and I am the one who answers them in the end. Contributions on the road to that answer come on multiple levels and there are often answers that I alone would never have come up with. But the choice to activate those answers in a work also lies with me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some of your earlier work involved what has been called "guerrilla" art. For instance, you dyed sections of rivers in Tokyo and Stockholm bright green without telling anyone, including city officials. In Tokyo the police even made a poster asking if anyone had seen you. These days though, city administrators everywhere invite you to make provocative public art work. Which city has been easiest to work in?

Eliasson: It would be wrong to say that the city of Berlin is not regulated. What I think is more interesting is to what extent a city creates a sort of safe haven for its users, so that people feel confident that the city works on their behalf. I haven't necessarily made art there but I have worked in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (Editor's note: Eliasson is one of the founders of the charity 121Ethiopia.org) and there you do not have faith that the city is acting in your best interests. People on the street are much more careful as to how they interact with their surroundings and even in how they speak about their surroundings.

Another example: I was in Beijing a month ago working on the smoke project in collaboration with an architect there, and I was asked very directly whether it was safe to breathe in the smoke. They did not have confidence in the museum not to use harmful smoke, and they certainly didn't have confidence that the city would protect them from harmful smoke. I was surprised by this lack of confidence in the infrastructure. Whereas here everyone says, well, it's the Martin-Gropius-Bau, it's a public museum, it's public money and it's not going to be dangerous. So yes, there are subtle differences and I think it's something we underestimate. I don't think it's something that (makes a city) better or worse, it is just something that is more interesting to me -- whether people feel causally included in the city, whether having an opinion is an asset.

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