Olafur Eliasson by Chris Gilbert @ BOMB 88/Summer 2004

Conceptual art’s shift away from the traditional art object—sometimes dubiously referred to as “dematerialization”—was more or less an idée reçue in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when Olafur Eliasson was beginning to make art as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. Though it was probably a dead end as a formal aesthetic proposition, “dematerialization” provided Eliasson with an open mandate to reach beyond the confines of specifically artistic concerns as he evolved a body of work that ranges from discrete interventions to room-size installations and massive, museum-wide environments—all of it employing shifting frames of reference that are shared with science, psychology and architecture. In this growing body of “objectless” works, experience and perception, rather than a supposedly unmediated thing-in-itself, have become Eliasson’s elusive subject. The physical components of these works—fog, light, ice and earth as well as steel, plastic and glass—are as heterogenous as the structures themselves, though the work shares a central function: fostering an engagement with an environment simultaneously with reflection on that engagement. When I spoke to the artist this spring, I was keen to discuss one of the most unusual moments in his varied oeuvre, his recent installation in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall, titled The Weather Project. This was a giant artificial sun placed in a mirrored arid fog-filled environment that droves of people came to see and took ownership of in an aggressive, sometimes cultish manner. I also wanted to explore how the interstitial position of his work, which is both equally engaged and equally distant from science, poetry and politics, could be compared to the role that modern philosophy—the “handmaiden” or the “queen” of other disciplines, according to Immanuel Kant—has occupied in the critical tradition that stretches from that pre-Romantic philosopher through G.W.F. Hegel to the present.
Chris Gilbert You often use the phrase “seeing yourself seeing” or “sensing yourself sensing” to describe the way your work functions. It is interesting that this proposition—namely, that the experience of nature is at least partly a human construct—could be taken as a summary of Romantic philosophy’s central idea. Immanuel Kant often referred to his work as effecting a reversal of the Copernican revolution that had put the sun rather than human beings and the earth at the center of the universe. Like the Romantics who followed him, Kant returns humanity to the center with the claim that we are co-creators of the world that we appear to encounter. It seems to me that a similar dynamic, accompanied by an ethics that likewise emphasizes human responsibility, operates in your work. It is indicated with particular clarity in both the title and the function of the work Your spiral view, which puts the viewer in the center of a light-refracting tube.
Olafur Eliasson If so, I hope this happens in a non-normative way. The problem with putting the model of the person seeing at the center is that it often results in normative ideas of spatiality and personhood. I would like to have the model of the subjective and singular experience at the center, but I would also like it to function non-normatively, which I suppose is a paradox. Kantian epistemology always seems to me inescapably normative. As I use these ideas of seeing-yourself-sensing or sensing-yourself-seeing, they are about trying to introduce relationships between having an experience and simultaneously evaluating and being aware that you are having this experience. It’s not about experience versus interpretation but about the experience inside the interpretive act, about the experience itself being interpretive. You could say that I’m trying to put the body in the mind and the mind in the body. Although I am still proposing a model—a way of seeing and engaging and a way of evaluating our surroundings as a human construction—it can operate with an extremely high degree of singularity. And the important thing is to acknowledge that it is merely a construction, which means that we are not offering a higher state of truth or truthfulness. I can’t say, “Now I’ve got the right model.” It’s not about utopia or anything final. (....)