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

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Part 2: 'I Am Not Worried Whether People Get It or Not'


SPIEGEL ONLINE: You clearly have some firm opinions yourself. Do you think artists have a political imperative?

Eliasson: I see the artist as a participant, a co-producer of reality. I do not see the artist as a person who sits at a distance and evaluates. I think an artist -- and maybe I'm talking about the art more than the artist, actually -- has the potential to investigate both form and content within one activity, to show that there can be coherence between form and values in our society, as in thinking about a city and building one. In this way, artists are valuable to public discussion: They show the correlation between doing and thinking.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Those are obviously serious intentions, but in a lot of ways your work is often a lot of fun. In some of the exhibits in Berlin today, people were smiling and laughing about the situation they were in, whether playing with their own shadows in front of the light boxes or trapped in a pink and purple fog. And in the past, your work has been described as enchanting and magical. So how do you make sure that pieces like "Your Blind Movement" -- the piece with the colored smoke -- don't just turn into some sort of silly carnival ride?

Eliasson: That's an important question and one that I enjoy thinking about. I don't think you need to be so result-oriented when you're trying to define the success of an art work. I think we can allow some unpredictability. And I think that this work does support some sort of self-critical thought or social criticism, though not in the more traditional way.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But how do you stop visitors just walking through the exhibition laughing at the colors but not really thinking about it?

Eliasson: I don't think that we understand the extent to which sight governs our surroundings. For the sake of sanity, the brain and the eyes keep things simple. But take away the sense of sight and suddenly things are not so simple. Other sensations, especially temporality, your awareness of time, become more active. Because here you need to navigate by other means. Of course, you can still see and you can see the smoke fade from red to pink to purple.

After 10 to 15, or maybe even 30, seconds you find a new way of orienting yourself. You think: Ah-hah! If I move through space, then the color changes. And as you tip-toe along, you leave one way of seeing behind and invent a different one. I find it remarkable that we are capable of doing this, using different senses. This doesn't mean that we now have a better way of seeing. It's just that we realize the reality we live in is our own construction and it can be changed by the way we engage with it, or by how we use our bodies, or our sense of time. With a piece like this, you have a distinct feeling that it is about something. And I am not worried whether people get it or not. I have great confidence in the visitors making some sense of it, something that will be relevant to them personally. And if some people go through it and it's just entertaining, then so what?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Being in the piece is quite an amazing feeling. It's quite a gentle transition in terms of that change in perception.

Eliasson: Thank you, we worked on perfecting the smoke for two years. And we must remember that amusement parks are traditionally far more aggressive and abusive. The smoke would be full of loud music, strobe lights, glittery people running around and Mickey Mouse figures. But I don't see it that way. It is definitely not a traditional work of art. People come here to see paintings. But this is more like walking through a painting and getting lost on the way.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the press conference today you were asked whether there will be people running around Berlin trying to find one of the "Eliasson" logs. After all, what seemed to be just a strange piece of wood, is actually a collector's item and potentially also worth a lot of money, seeing as it comes from your studio. And you replied that the logs were not "pieces of art for the art market." So you don't like the art market -- despite the fact that you make a living from making art?

Eliasson: Actually, I am not opposed to the art market. I have lots of friends who are collectors. But the whole idea of the art market is complex. Sadly today we have a situation where auction houses and secondary market dealers are creating a lot of confusion and unnecessary pollution. And we also have this situation where you have private collections whose signature is increasingly sophisticated alongside public collections that are being forced toward more traditional, conventional ideas of art collecting. When museums are left with so little money that their future is in the hands of private donors, then they are unable to develop their own signatures by collecting themselves. On the other hand, though, I think we should also celebrate the fact that there is a lot of art that lives outside of, or on the outskirts of, the art market -- and it is doing quite well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So was it your idea to make entry on the exhibition's opening day, April 28, free to the general public?

Eliasson: That is more of a gesture, really. In the art world, we are seeing private events where the budget spent on them is even bigger than the money that was spent on producing the art in the first place. To counter that sort of thing -- those opening parties for VIPs -- and because this is a show about the city and the museum, my idea was that the public could be the VIPs at the opening. I don't want to turn it into some sort of overcrowded … (hesitates). Actually, maybe that's not true. I don't mind a party where everybody can come. It might be like a giant Berlin block party, which I think is a great idea. And I guess there's a statement in that.

Olafur Eliasson's "Innen Stadt Aussen" runs from April 28 to Aug. 9, 2010 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. "The Blind Pavilion," a public work made by Eliasson for the exhibition, can be visited on the Pfaueninsel island near Berlin's Wannsee lake until Oct. 31, 2010.

Interview conducted by Cathrin Schaer

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