I believe in contemporary art #1 Olafur Eliasson

In the beginning of the summer I was invited to give some lectures at Liljeholmens Art School. I was given the vague task of being inspirational. I’m not sure if I did well, but I thought I would post some parts of my ”lectures” on the blog. If for nothing else to translate them to english for future use!

I titled the lecture series ”I believe in contemporary art” because I wanted to introduce what contemporary art means to me. I was told not to worry too much about the level of teachings, as the students were mostly in-experienced in relation to contemporary art. I figured then that I would simply sort of walk the students through some of my meetings with contemporary art and how these meetings have led me to become a ”believer”. I decided to choose experiences ”in the flesh” so to speak; artworks and exhibitions that I had experienced first hand in order to give some authenticity to it all.

Now, I would like to start, as I did with my class, to apologize. I realized too late that I only brought up male artists, most of them old men at that. Several of them even have beards. Shame on me. I promised the class that I would give a similar lecture in the spring but based solely on contemporary female artist! (So I promise this also to you, whom you may be, that a similar series of posts will appear based on awesome female artist of which there are many!)

The first artist and experience I brought up was Olafur Eliasson!


Olafur is a Danish-born Islantic artist. He was born in 1967 and studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. He has represented Denmark at the Venice Bienalle (2003) and has had numerous exhibitions around the world although he is probably most famous for his exhibition in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. He works with big installations, often in public spaces, and often uses light, water, and shifts in temperature to enhance the viewers experience.

Olafur had an exhibiton at Malmö Konsthall titled ”The Light Setup” in 2005. In this exhibiton he worked, as is hinted at by the title, mostly with light. I especially remember three installations from this exhibition that blew my mind at the time, and still, when I think about them, fascinate me. I will only go into detail about two of them, you can send me an email if you want to know about the third.

The first installation was a wall of light. I am unsure of the dimensions of this wall, but perhaps three or four meters high and between seven and ten meters wide. The wall was built in such a manner that it emanated a uniform light across the whole surface. I can only guess how it was built, but I would guess there was a hundreds, maybe thousands of single light sources set closely together which then had been covered with a translucent material which transported the light evenly across its surface; some sort of plastic or frosted glass or something.

This wall of light, which emanated a uniform light across its entire surface, was, however, not static. The light slowly changed character as it changed frequencies. It moved from warm to cold, from slightly bluish tones to red or yellow. But the spectrum in which it shifted was quite small. No matter at what point of the cycle you entered the room the first impression was that of a large white, uniform, wall of light. It was not until standing in front of the wall that you started to notice the changes. And the strange, and magical, thing was that it was not so much the eye that registered the change, it was the body. It felt like being transported from one place to another. One moment you stood in the warm glow of the sun on a beach in southern France, the next it was a brisk autumn day on the country side of southern Sweden, and then it was a bitter cold winters day… This transportation took place in the body without the body ever moving. And just like one can link memories to tastes, you traveled to places you once been with just the slow change of the light. It was a journey across time and space which was as real as anything one had experienced before, whilst the body was very much bound to the same space and little time had elapsed.

In another room there was another light installation which was amazing. I’m not sure I would be quite as impressed today, but as a 20 year old boy who was still immensely taken by the film The Matrix and the bullet time function in the video game Max Payne it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. Looking back at it now, I’m not actually sure if this was an installation done by Olafur, because I can’t find any information on the net about it, but I’ll credit it to him, because that’s how I remember it. The installation gave the impression that a brick which had been shot through a wall had been frozen in time. It just hung there in the middle of the air, particles from the wall also hanging in mid-air, and everything was arranged in such a way that there was ”frozen movement”. Every particle seemed to have come out of the hole in the wall behind the brick. In a ring around the frozen brick, particles and dust, lamps where placed. So one could not get so close to the actual brick. But the ring of lamps, somehow, made the threads by which the brick and the particles must have been hung, invisible. So even though it was obviously an illusion, the illusion was just as powerful as if the lamps had somehow been hidden. The contrast with the wall of light, which could transport your body across time and space, to the brick just around the corner which was frozen in time and space, made your mind take somersaults of joy! It was, in lack of other words: Awesome!

This exhibition was the first time, I think, that I really had a profound experience from a work of art. It was for me eye opening (remember, I was 20…) that art could be something other than a physical object. Or at least not physical object in the sense that it could be hung or placed on a pedestal. Because even if there was a very physical brick in one of the installations, the brick wasn’t the real building block of the exhibition. The real building block of the exhibiton was something as simple and fantastic as light. And this exhibition gave me a new experience in how to view light as a phenomenon. That if something, must be what art is for. To help us recognize things we otherwise wouldn’t!

This exhibition also helped me understand that art can be used to affect the viewer physically. That art can actually be interactive even without apparent points of interaction. The viewer couldn’t change the space or the experience in any big way, but the art could change the viewer.

I had a similar experience years later when I went to a retrospective of Anish Kapoor in Dehli. Maybe I will write something about that exhibition another time..

If you get the chance to experience either of these two artist, do take it, you wont regret it!