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.

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?

'I Do Want to Participate in the World'

Eliasson: My real subject is people. I am ultimately fascinated by the question: What is reality for us? We have all learned that there is no single true reality. But how do we get our bearings, and how are we aligned? Even the idea of a reality "construct" is only a construction, after all.

SPIEGEL: Confusing!

Eliasson: Reality is confusing. That's what I want to demonstrate. There is no fixed interpretation of my works. Everyone experiences and understands them in his own way.

SPIEGEL: And now you're supposed to create something geared mainly toward tourists. The city of New York, with the help of private sponsors, has raised $15 million (€9.4 million) for your waterfalls, which are expected to attract millions of people. Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes that you will generate at least $55 million (€34.4 million) in tourism revenue for the city. Do you like such cost-benefit calculations?

Eliasson: No. Of course, I am interested in reaching as many people as possible, and I know I will have to perform a balancing act with this project. It will be an event. But statements like Bloomberg's can lead to people looking at the work with a certain sense of anticipation. They become biased and see it as a tourist attraction, no longer as a work of art. I have discussed this with the mayor several times, and I think he understands it now. His press releases have improved considerably.

SPIEGEL: You could be seen as the new Christo. He transformed New York's Central Park into a sea of banners.

Eliasson: Christo is an amazing artist. But the way he exploits his projects and markets them so extremely, that's not my style.

SPIEGEL: But you too have crossed the boundary into commercialism. For instance, you designed an "Art Car" for BMW.

Eliasson: Well, I do want to participate in the world, as it is. But look at it more closely: My art isn't exactly market-friendly. Who buys a rainbow?

SPIEGEL: Still, do you have the feeling sometimes that you are getting your fingers dirty? Proximity to business is frowned upon in the art world.

Eliasson: This world of art and of museums can also be unbelievably elitist. But it isn't a parallel world, where the laws of the market are somehow suspended. Artists don't live in a space apart from politics and the market, and in many cases they even have very good strategies to market themselves. It would be hypocritical to claim otherwise. But believe me, my fingers are clean.

SPIEGEL: More than two million people went to see your "Weather Project," a colossal sun sculpture, at the Tate Modern in London four years ago last winter. The minute an artist reaches large numbers of people, he is accused of going mainstream. Is that a problem for you?

Eliasson: Appealing to many people isn't a problem for me. I don't happen to be one of those people who climb up on their avant-garde stools and look down on others. We should stop nurturing this naïve cliché that says artists are beings from another planet. It wasn't God himself who hung art in museums. And yet the museum directors create precisely this detached impression. It would be much more honest to talk about the many connections and influences, because they exist. The market exists, and so do ideologies.

SPIEGEL: You yourself are someone who leaves nothing to chance, right?

Eliasson: Every project is a risk. The things that count can't be tested first. You can simulate everything on a computer, but things are different in real life, and you can't predict how audiences will react. In other words, I am someone who in fact submits to chance. That was especially true of my "Weather Project" at the Tate Modern, if only because it was so big.

SPIEGEL: People spent hours lying on the ground, gazing at your artificial sun, creating spontaneous happenings every day. Were you surprised by this effect?

Eliasson: Of course. My works can't be compared to those of a painter, who can complete his paintings in a studio, adding a brushstroke here and there. My work is either done on-site or not at all -- no matter how much money and effort are expended. I like these experiments, not just in museums, but also in the public sphere. That's where we must take far greater risks, because it's also where we reach the largest number of people.

SPIEGEL: Do you now know what fascinated so many people about your sun? Was it beauty?

Eliasson: Would that be so bad? I like beauty, but perhaps it means something completely different to me than to you. That's the point.

SPIEGEL: What happened to that legendary installation?

Eliasson: It's in my basement.

SPIEGEL: Meaning that it's still available for sale?

Eliasson: Yes, in principle. But you should enter into those negotiations with my gallery owners, who don't have much to do otherwise. If you do buy the work, if you even have that much space, you should know it would no longer be the same work that it was at the Tate Modern.

SPIEGEL: Because it would be missing the fog machines you installed at the time?

Eliasson: No, because each work changes its character as it changes locations. Many artists believe their works are completely autonomous. It's a point of view that we've taken from industry. We assume that a product, a car, for example, is perceived in the same way everywhere, irrespective of the location and culture. But there are differences, even with cars, and much more so in the case of art, especially new art, for which we cannot resort to existing interpretations.

SPIEGEL: Would the Mona Lisa no longer be the same painting if it were hanging somewhere else, and not in the Louvre?

Eliasson: Yes. The importance of the Mona Lisa goes far beyond someone having applied paint to a canvas. It also feeds on the centuries-long interaction with the painting. The Mona Lisa has its history, and so does the Louvre. The way we perceive something depends on many factors.

SPIEGEL: Your art, which is in tune with nature, is often associated with your native Scandinavia and its landscape.

Eliasson: Yes, but this relationship should not be understood as a key to my art. The circumstances under which I grew up in Denmark are more important than nature: in a society that was shaped by pseudo-Protestantism, and by the ideals of the middle class and the welfare state. The individual was less important than the community. Recognizing this, identifying it as a source of tension, has influenced me. Besides, it is also typically Scandinavian to think: I am nothing, and nature is everything. Of course, I too had this attitude. My parents are Icelanders, and Iceland, which I visited regularly as a child, is a unique natural experience.

SPIEGEL: Do you think in German, Danish or Icelandic?

Eliasson: Mostly in English in the last few hours, because we talked about New York a lot. But I'm completely untalented when it comes to languages. I like the German language. It's like a Scandinavian landscape: vast, generous and beautiful.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Eliasson, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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