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.
'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.