Optical Magic

Olafur Eliasson transforms the mechanics of seeing into a crucial component of his alluring art.

In antiquity, around the Mediterranean basin the color blue did not exist. Historian Michel Pastoureau explains that people saw it—the Greeks and Romans were not visually impaired as some historians have suggested—but they did not perceive it as a color, nor did they have a specific word for it. Even the sea and sky, so blue in that part of the globe, looked white, gold, or red to them. For Olafur Eliasson, the 39-year-old Danish installation artist whose main media are light and color, cultural blindness like this is a phenomenon that begs to be investigated. From his studio in Berlin he designs environments that highlight (literally) the way the brain selectively edits visual information.

Eliasson’s art is an exploration of the physiological fact that the eye is not a mirror but an apparatus that generates vision; his pieces turn the observer into an active participant of the viewing process. “In this sense,” says Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which staged a major Eliasson show in 2002, “he is heir to Marcel Duchamp, who said that the spectator does half the work.” The kind of heightened self-consciousness that his work elicits is what the artist calls “seeing oneself seeing,” a formulation he borrowed from light-installation pioneer László Moholy-Nagy, for whom the goal of art was to make us “feel what we know and know what we feel.”

Eliasson has been working on this idea for more than 15 years. One of his early installations for a 1993 group show at the GLOBE Kuratorengruppe, in Copenhagen, consisted of a lamp illuminating a fine spray of atomized water, creating the fugacious apparition of a rainbow in the mist (Beauty). For him the optical phenomenon (the result of a refraction taking place in the eye of the spectator, not in the room itself) served as a demonstration that what we see is a visual construction. For visitors what was most striking was not the experiment itself but its in situ dimension. Placed in front of a massive door, the quivering rainbow was an impenetrable barrier, its insidious humidity as much a deterrent as the solid portal it guarded.

Using light as others might use bricks and mortar, Eliasson turns luminosity into an architectural element. Often water is the facilitator. He partitions space with curtains made of drops of water frozen by strobe lights (Your Strange Certainty Still Kept) or he converts fog into a building material, neatly carving a cubic meter of emptiness by slicing through a foggy room with spotlights (1m3 Light). Even when his light constructions seemed to float in darkness, as in Meant to Be Lived In (Today I’m Feeling Prismatic), a site-specific art piece installed in a cantilevered villa in Pasadena, California, architecture was the critical consideration. Covering the floors and windows with a squishy black rubber that blocked not only the light but also the stunning views, Eliasson drew attention on what one expects when stepping inside a Modernist house. The disconcerting cavelike setup was as much a part of the experiment as the optical devices and prismatic projections exhibited in it.

“Eliasson responds to a specific environment,” MoMA director Glen Lowry says. “Each of his installations is totally unique because each is designed for a unique location.” Sometimes the location is the brain of the viewer, as when Eliasson bathes a room or a corridor in yellow light, using low-sodium bulbs that render all other colors invisible. With much less color information to process, your brain concentrates on details, causing everything to become sharper and more distinct. By turning an ordinary hallway into a hyperrealistic environment, the illusionist gives his audience a chance to marvel at the fickleness of their vision. “I try to build installations that let you see yourself rather than the installation,” Eliasson says.

For the 2005 Venice Biennale, he and London-based architect David Adjaye conceived a windowless room with a false horizon drawn in light all around. It was a mere slit in the wall placed at eye level, but so compelling is our constructed relationship with the horizon (the separation between heaven and earth!) that reconciling the illusion of infinite distance with the feeling of being boxed in was a challenge. Trapped between two impressions, visitors shifted their perception back and forth, aware of their subjectivity, discomfort, and delight. Eventually they had to engage with the piece as coauthors in what Eliasson describes as “a reversal of subject and object: the viewer becomes the object and the context becomes the subject.” He adds, “I always try to turn the viewer into what’s on show, make him mobile and dynamic.”

The demarcation between what’s above and below is a recurring motif in Eliasson’s works, with mirrored ceilings his tool of choice. His most magisterial use of this scheme was at London’s Tate Modern, where in 2003 he doubled the height of the Turbine Hall—the museum’s majestic lobby—filling it with drifting patches of fog that blurred the boundary between the actual space and its vertical reflection (The Weather Project). But the signature element of this installation was an artificial yellow sun—the only source of light in this film noir setting. Half a glowing disk suspended from the mirrored ceiling, the oversize globe was obviously a makeshift orb, just enough of a visual support for viewers to suspend their disbelief and bask in its light. A popular destination in London that winter, the Tate was transformed into a virtual beach, with people lying down on the floor to catch their reflection way up there—a speck no larger than that of a migrating bird.

Eliasson’s installations are designed to encourage people to see space as unfolding in front of them. He wants you to become aware of the temporal as well as the spatial dimension of your experience, a concern he shares with architects. “We all know that the manipulation of light can help choreograph the experience in space and emphasize movement as well as stasis,” says architect Richard Gluckman, designer of New York’s Dia Center for the Arts. But Eliasson’s work is essentially subversive: it is a deliberate refutation of the Modernist assumption that individuals are measurable entities who negotiate space and time according to predictable parameters.

In fact one of his most recent pieces is a direct attack on the universality of the white cube (The Light Setup). Installed at the Malmö Konsthall, in Sweden, the 16,145-square-foot exhibition was set in an empty hall illuminated by 1,500 fluorescent lights behind giant screens—some on the walls, some on the ceilings —programmed to deliver different shades of white light, each affecting the way people moved across space. “I developed a system that allowed me to take a spectrographic reading of the exact quality of the white light in different parts of the world, at different hours of the day, and during different seasons,” Eliasson explains. Much like a perfumer mixing high-tech fragrance notes replicating natural ones, he was able to create visual cocktails of ivory, chalky, icy, creamy, milky, and pearly lights, debunking the idea that there is such a thing as “pure” white.

“Eliasson’s pieces are very, very carefully thought out,” Lowry says. “He is always thinking about larger issues and how they manifest themselves in space. But the intellectual underpinning of his work never detracts from the fact that the result is beautiful.”

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