Art is Frictional

author Olafur Eliasson
interviewed by Maroje Mrudljaš, Alan Kostrenčić

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Interviewed in Berlin, March 14th, 2008


ORIS: When we were looking at the map of Berlin, searching for your studio, we noticed that you are situated near Humboldt University, which we find interesting because you are engaged in merging art and science; you are always interested in this advanced context, so it’s kind of metaphorical that you are here. The question is the relationship between art and science in your work.


Eliasson: It’s such a broad question. It’s obvious that I’m not a scientist and I’m not scientifically trained or particularly technically skilful.


ORIS: Still, the Experiment Marathon which you and Hans Ulrich Obrist organized at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London in autumn 2007 included lectures and presentations by artists but also scientists from different fields.


Eliasson: Many scientists work on developing tools with which we can address the world. Not unlike in the realm of art, scientists are making ways of seeing the world and that’s why art occasionally takes scientific tools or ways of questioning things into consideration. The topic is multifaceted, and it of course depends on the type of science and the type of artistic project in question. Essentially, in my artistic or spatial practice I constantly look for tools that can introduce new critical perspectives on the work, and in doing that, I can test certain scientific principles. They might not apply to the holistic nature of my questions; they might apply to part of the question only, amplifying a certain quality or a certain critical principle.


The Experiment Marathon in London was about developing a narrative; creating a whole sequence of experiments, one after the other, more or less scientific. I found the overall narrative coming out of that productive as the Marathon gave you an almost psychographic feeling of what tools we are looking at the world with today. This was quite exciting. Still, the proportion of scientists in the Serpentine Pavilion was minimal compared to the number of scientific directions in the world. Microscopic, really.


ORIS: It was not easy to follow all these experiments, presentations and performances. But in the end the experience was still extremely intense because you don’t have to completely understand all these concepts and ideas. The end result is a basic idea and survey of what’s going on in both the artistic and the scientific worlds.


Eliasson: As most scientists try to map the world in one way or the other, they will always have a feeling of overlap with reality, even though they work from within very specific fields. Almost all science is world-related in one way or another.


ORIS: And society also needs art in order to formulate a more comprehensive understanding of itself.


Eliasson: It’s important to say, though, that art – in my opinion – should be seen in the context of the society and the time in which we live. I’ve been interested in demystifying art by emphasizing a sort of cause-and-effect relationship between art and society. Art is really a dialogue rather than just a statement. One should be careful in claiming that art has a mystical power to make things more interesting simply due to its being art. Just as in science, it’s really important to focus on the content, and this might not necessarily be very specific or explainable or programmatic. Still, artistic content and form should be seen as something frictional, even giving resistance to our society. If you eliminate the idea that art is frictional, it tends to become very formal.


ORIS: You spoke in some interviews about the Californian Light and Space movement which influenced you. It’s quite interesting to see that you have an interest in a phenomenological approach, while you also incorporate scientific knowledge. This seems like a logical merger.


Eliasson: When I was still a young art student in the late 1980s and early 90s, the notion of objecthood in art was really dominant, partly because of a very strong art market, but also just as a reaction to the 60s and particularly the 70s. Art was somehow caught up in these fetishistic ideas of what an object is. As I was very sceptical about that, I looked for alternatives, and one area I found particularly inspiring was the Light and Space movement, as these artists were involved in the dematerialized art object – I think there were many doing this, without taking away the contextual potential of art. The Light and Space artists wanted to draw attention to the experience of art, to the relationship between whatever they did, the artwork, and the spectator, and they also wanted to see the relationship as something progressive and proactive, not just a formal relationship. Robert Irwin, for instance, became involved with psychology and other topics that people might think were external to art. This was very important – Irwin was a source of inspiration to me alongside people like James Turrell. Only a little bit later did I become more interested in issues such as phenomenology. I’m not at all a scholar of phenomenology, but I looked at it as part of my schooling. I read some Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl and through Husserl I approached Henri Bergson. This was pretty straightforward – I think it’s important to acknowledge that you can read Husserl in at least two ways, either as a very academic exercise of philosophy, or you can look at Husserl as a toolbox for ways of questioning social issues. I took interest in phenomenology and started questioning the relationship between people and art and how art operates in society. When people ask me if I’m particularly interested in phenomenology, I normally say: ‘No, I’m interested in art,’ but phenomenology helps me give art a voice that says something with a degree of precision that is otherwise difficult to obtain. Phenomenology as a field of study is something I don’t have much to say about. Apart from the Light and Space artists, I was also influenced by a lot of Fluxus, of Dada, by the surrealists and kinetic artists – there’s so much great stuff around.


ORIS: I think it’s important to point out that your interest in phenomenology is not reduced to the question of perception or cognition, because you address social issues through phenomenological concepts. This idea was embedded in the Serpentine Pavilion, which you designed together with the Norwegian architect Kjetil Thorsen. It’s obviously constructed as a social space.


Eliasson: It was intended to be a social space, but the idea of the structure was that sociality would not be fixed beforehand but should perform itself, so to speak. Through that performance the space would be constituted; not the other way around. The space was not normative in the sense that it claimed to be a specific frame of reference for social activity. I don’t know whether we succeeded, but we wanted the space to be inconclusive. Only through its temporality and social friction did it become productive. With no people, I still think it was a nice sculpture, but it wasn’t performing.


ORIS: When you look at architectural magazines, most of the time buildings are photographed without people, the only witness of its materiality is the camera lens. But architecture is all about events and people inhabiting the building, not just the building itself.


Eliasson: One of my works is a turning spiral, suspended from the ceiling [Quadruple Spiral, 2004]. It’s not a particularly sophisticated work, but it does what it does very well. If you stand still, looking at the spiral, it seems to be moving either up or down, but if you walk around it, the physical impact that your own movement introduces makes the spiral stop. How you see the spiral is dependent on the speed of your own body.


But to get back to the Serpentine Pavilion case: if you depict a building in a magazine, you obviously turn something three-dimensional into a two-dimensional representation. When you take away the depth of the building by reducing it to two dimensions, you also take away its temporal dimension. So you don’t only make the object flat; you also make it atemporal. I believe that we have come to a phase in architecture and the spatial sciences where temporality has lost its value. It has become externalized and excluded because it – and the idea of change – doesn’t fit into commercial structures. Temporality and change aren’t considered profitable by the market. So we have to reintroduce temporality in a productive way as it’s very valuable as a critical tool with which, not to deconstruct, but to re-evaluate the way we address space. The idea behind the Serpentine Pavilion was to devise a pavilion with no front and no back. It was based on some very simple geometric principles: a circle, an ellipse, a spiral and a cone. By making a ramp, we introduced the idea of walking on a slope – which is something you can hardly feel at all in a picture. At the top of the ramp, where the roof ended, we made an ellipse rather than the standard circular oculus. The ellipse has the exciting property that it isn’t deformed when seen in perspective – unlike a circle which becomes an ellipse. Mathematically, an ellipse does not change. This means that if you look at the Pantheon in Rome, the oculus in the ceiling reveals roughly where you are in relation to the centre of the building, based on the deformation of the circle into an ellipse. One could say that orientational directions are embedded in the building and these are activated as you physically move through it. By putting an ellipse in the ceiling, the situation changes because it doesn’t help you in the same way by telling you where you are. By orienting yourself, by moving around, being in time or of time, you constitute the space yourself. The ellipse doesn’t function as a hierarchical key, explaining when you are on the left side of the space, when on the right. This is what I mean by saying that the building was not producing you – you produced the building. Of course it’s a dialogue; of course the building always produces you to a certain extent, but it’s also about handing over responsibility to the user. This was also our idea with the Experiment Marathon, to emphasise our co-production of reality, as crazy as it sounds.


ORIS: Architects often try to impose a universal, exclusive order, practically doing the opposite of inclusion of the users. Most of your projects engage a viewer to be an active participant in the event. Your art is an event of seeing, being and exploring.


Eliasson: Historically, I think art in general has been considered proactive in the creation of individual identity; it elicits personal responses and challenges people to reflect on who they are. Architecture has a stronger tradition of being normative because it tends to represent the societal values at a certain time, not necessarily in a non-critical manner, but it still has a representational dimension. Art on the other hand claims to leave the idea of representation behind – which is also not necessarily true. Still art doesn’t just reflect the values of a given time; rather it questions those values, that’s the fundamental difference. Of course, I’m generalizing again.


ORIS: Do you see your spatial investigations as related to architecture or you still see them as art?


Eliasson: I’ve never claimed to be an architect, and, at the end of the day, I always see things as art. It seems relevant today to suggest that it simply does not really matter whether it is art or architecture, as long as it performs the way we want it to, and as long as the criticality has an impact. I think the idea of a laboratory, the idea of an experimental plateau, is very productive. It’s in-between design, art, architecture, fashion, spatial experiments as such, scientific experiments, socio-ethical experiments.... This is why there are about 35 people in my studio – where we’re sitting right now. I think of this as a laboratory which is part of a bigger context, part of Berlin. It’s very important not to say that when you step into the laboratory, you leave Berlin behind. Going into the laboratory means getting even closer to Berlin.


I now and again claim to be mainstream – not avant-garde – because this gives me the potential of creating friction with the surrounding reality. I want to talk to as many people as possible, and to be avant-garde would be very counterproductive for this. It’s elitist. One of the big challenges of the art world is its elitism and arrogance.


ORIS: The magazine you started [TYT [Take Your Time], Vol.1: Small Spatial Experiments] is also a part of this project, documenting what’s going on inside the studio because this is a real laboratory and deserves to be shown as a research process.


Eliasson: It’s an experiment. Whether it’s a good idea or not we will know after having produced one or two more issues. I think it’s exciting – maybe it has given everybody the ability to look upon themselves in the context of the studio from a third-person point of view; this is very healthy because it introduces a degree of criticism.


ORIS: Your office is organized as a research laboratory, but you are now also engaged in organizing a school, which is going to be some kind of parallel or counterpoint to this studio. I’m interested in this methodology of work and the idea of transmitting knowledge.


Eliasson: I’m still very doubtful about the whole thing, but I try to find a trajectory that embraces the doubt in a productive way. It’s a challenge to see if we can do something as radical as a school and yet allow doubt to be our guide. We are playing with the name for the institute – I was thinking of Institut für Zweifelhafte Raumforschung, meaning Institute for Doubtful Spatial Research. That’s the working title, but we probably won’t use it. It’s part of a larger collaboration that I would like to emphasise between the studio, museums and universities. A studio like this one is obviously about different kinds of production and the way I think about museums or exhibitions, which I do all the time, is that they facilitate the communication of art. It’s the communication of what we do here. I’ve also wanted to work with the production of knowledge as it takes place in universities and the entire educational system; I want to reflect on pedagogic principles. That’s why I call the practice of these three institutions for production, communication, and knowledge. I’ve also suggested the name ProCoKnow [PROduction COmmunication KNOWledge]. I would like to develop a school concept that allows for spatial and artistic experiments, for socio-ethical experiments, and that also leaves room for exhibitions and the communication of these; the school can also have a homepage and a magazine. I’ve been involved with several architecture and art schools around the world, from Asia to America, but mostly in Europe. It’s alarmingly clear that something is not right, but it’s just difficult to do something about it. When I say that I embrace doubt, I mean doubt as a kind of progressive criticality. There’s a wonderful artist called Carsten Höller, who’s worked with this. In his terminology, the moment you’re certain, the work disappears. The school is a part of the Universität der Künste in Berlin. I will probably have between 15 and 20 students, or participants, which is maybe a better name, and we will have a co-professor or visiting professors as well. It will be a laboratory not unlike the one at the Pavilion in London, except not everything will happen in one day. It’s not about having the studio or the school. It’s about making one sphere with two discrete units, which is why they are located close to each other – almost in the same space.


ORIS: I wanted to ask you about the element of nature you introduce into your projects on many different levels from the project where you used colours [Green River project] to the situation where you transposed nature into the Kunsthaus in Bregenz [The Mediated Motion, 2001].


Eliasson: I think nature is unique in one respect: it’s very elusive and full of potential for us to create personal narratives or stories. Elusive in the sense that it’s hard to actively pinpoint a cloud precisely; the ephemeral qualities are so strong on the one hand. But on the other, nature is always very tangible, very physical, very much about the body. It’s about activating our various senses. One reason for my fascination with nature is this ability to be both elusive and tactile – something that architecture, for instance, rarely succeeds in. Unfortunately, architecture is often right in the middle.


I’m interested in creating phenomena into which people can project their own opinions and experiences. This means I need to choose a subject matter or phenomenon that is very open for interpretation. Nature already has the ability to be open to various types of interpretation. So in one way, nature and natural phenomena tend to be very accessible, very democratic. A rainbow or some moss or a stone are very easily accessible. I use nature more as a language or a form with which I can address the things I’m interested in. I could also use a different language – and I occasionally do just that. Generally speaking, I try not to romanticize about nature. My work is not about nature; it’s about people.


ORIS: Nature functions as artistic material. Like, for example, with the Your Black Horizon project [2005], you first took a sample of the changing light in Venice, then in Lopud, and then you used this natural phenomenon to produce cognitive-physiological effects.


Eliasson: Yes, it’s not always easy with nature, especially pseudo-romantic scientists, architects or artists tend to claim that nature holds a mystical potential. The national romantic tradition in architecture, for instance by Plečnik, played with the idea of a universal formal language which, I think, since then has been proved wrong. The potential should not be externalized into a goal, but the growth of crystals or the patterns and stacking principles of nature, those things can be investigated as long as we don’t make any universalizing conclusions. This is what I meant by saying that nature has this ability to be both elusive and also very tactile. It can be something that we experience personally, but also something we can relate to as a group, in a social setting.


Speaking of the individual and the group – this leads me to an idea that I’ve borrowed from the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘being singular plural’. He states that the only way of being in the world is being-with. You can never just be, you can only be with, that is, together with someone else, at the same time as something else. You don’t exist before the relation with others. I find this very interesting. Coming from here, I also find it challenging to readdress some of the expressionistic architecture: I’ve looked at the German expressionists, at the idea of utopia in the architecture of, for instance, Paolo Soleri from Italy, the Rudolf Steiner schools and the anthroposophic movement. There’s a lot of interesting research that has been neglected for dogmatic reasons. It’s not irrelevant to reconsider some of these experiments, now that the position of the singular person can be defined differently.


ORIS: Are you interested in any way in the concept of utopia or heterotopia in relation to these investigations?


Eliasson: I find the traditional notion of utopia very normative – it’s about generalizing the aims of society, of defining common goals that don’t leave much room for individuality. I prefer to think of utopia as something internal rather than an externalized goal. It’s of course still worthwhile to have dreams, to strive towards something. Singular utopias are interesting – your personal ambition to become more precise in the way you conduct your life. That, of course, is a big matter. The problem with the traditional conception of utopia is that it’s defined as a place. Maybe the challenge is to understand that utopia is not a place, but that it’s the journey itself. So, in the end I guess the answer to your question is probably ‘no’, because I mostly defined that which utopia isn’t.


ORIS: Essentially, there’s this horizon of the idea of developing. This is an updated way of thinking about utopia.


Eliasson: To me it makes sense to refer to reality as a construction or a series of constructions. This understanding allows for a high degree of criticality; you can talk about the world in which we live as a model or a constructed environment. Reality is made, as and when we live our lives; it isn’t simply there. I think it makes sense to claim that the world is a model. This claim, in turn, is also a model, but it’s also a kind of reality. I like this way of it being self-producing: every time you actually realize what you did was a construction of reality, you create a new layer of reality and you integrate that into your work and life on a daily level.


ORIS: I think it’s very democratic in the way that it’s obvious there are many realities, not just one. That’s the issue of singularity.


Eliasson: The discussion about being singular plural is ontological, but we can also bring it into the contemporary political climate and relate it to parliamentarianism and the EU; it then becomes about the exclusion or inclusion of different cultural agendas. It’s also about democracy’s ability to actually embrace and sustain diversity. We experience a very strong surge of anti-diversity feelings in Europe right now, not just at the level of xenophobia, racism and other obvious ways, but also on a parliamentary level, where we lack the ability to renegotiate democratic values on a broader scale. The EU simply doesn’t exert the self-criticality that would be the key and allow for diversity in a more profound way. A few people such as Bruno Latour or Peter Sloterdijk are introducing languages that handle diversity within the democratic models of society in a very sophisticated way, and I’m not really competent to talk about that with the same degree of complexity. In general, there’s just no debate at all about what democracy is. I think some of the tools with which we can address such matters are being created within art.