Let There Be Light

Six years ago, Olafur Eliasson moved the nerve center of his globe-spanning practice to a long, low-lying building directly alongside Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof museum. Formerly the freight warehouse of the train-station-turned-museum, the massive structure also houses the studios of videomaker Tacita Dean and photographer Thomas Demand. But calling Eliasson's space there a "studio" would be like calling the Queen Mary 2 a "boat."

From the beginning, Copenhagen-born Eliasson has relied on collaborators to help him realize his large-scale sculptures and installations, which often use light and water to dramatic effect.
At first he simply had an assistant or two. But in 1996, at age 30, he started working with Einar Thorsteinn, an architect and geometry expert 25 years his senior. The first piece they created together, 8900054, involved constructing a stainless-steel dome 30 feet wide and seven feet high, designed to appear as if it were emerging from the ground. The effect is uncanny; even though you know it's an illusion, your mind constantly suggests that the structure is just part of a much larger one surfacing from deep within the earth. Since then, much of Thorsteinn's research in geometry and space has been integrated into Eliasson's artistic production, most often his geometric lamp works but also his pavilions, tunnels and camera obscura projects.

"Quite early on, I saw my limitations, and I had no problem asking specialists to help me solve the problems I faced," says Eliasson. "I see no contradiction between a large number of people making an object and its still being considered an artwork."

As Eliasson's renown rose over the next decade, commissions rolled in and collector demand grew. His means and ambitions expanded, along with the staff devoted to realizing them. Currently the head count hovers around 30 (even more when the project load spikes), an international team that includes specialists ranging from mathematicians to carpenters. Today tasks that Eliasson once outsourced, such as metal- and woodworking, are done in-house so that he can monitor their progress from experiment to prototype to finished object. In the basement below the main studio is a warren of full-blown workshops devoted to these crafts, as well as to light making and electronics.

In addition to its primary pursuit of producing art for galleries and museums, the studio usually hosts a flurry of auxiliary activities. A Danish film crew has been following Eliasson around for the past two years to produce a two-and-a-half-hour documentary. One wall in the studio is covered with mock-ups of a magazine that Eliasson's team will soon publish, drawing on the extensive research and discussions that go into his various projects. Asked to make an "art car" by BMW, for example, Eliasson held seminars that featured experts in fields as varied as architecture, art, philosophy, journalism, hydrogen studies, and violin making. The "car" that resulted is a sinuous abstracted-vehicle shape covered by metal netting coated with ice to create a texture vaguely resembling chain mail. In another corporate partnership, Eliasson designed the "Eye See You" lamp for the 2006 Christmas windows of Louis Vuitton's more than 360 stores worldwide. (Proceeds from the sale of the lamps go to 121Ethiopia.org, an aid organization Eliasson founded with his wife, the architectural theorist Marianne Krogh Jensen.)

On the day I visited the artist in Berlin, a quarter of the main studio floor, roughly 600 square feet, was taken up by a life-size model of one of the works he is creating for "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson," his September survey show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As it stood that particular afternoon, the as-yet-untitled piece comprised several low channels of water laid parallel to a screen. Light shining onto the water was to be reflected onto the screen, creating oscillating, superimposed strips of brightness. The effect is intended to be symphonic—the harmony (or cacophony) of many light waves coming together. "We've tested all sorts of things," Eliasson explains. "We're testing different types of light sources and using wave machines in the water. There might be a mechanical device that people step on, creating the waves. The prototype model has gone up and down maybe 20 times. But this is the normal way here."

Although this may seem a very physical form of experimentation, the installation was conceived digitally. Eliasson explains that once he feels satisfied with the life-size model, the project will again go digital, with the ceiling lowered in a computer rendering to see how such a tweak changes the space. This part of the process takes place in a loft under the eaves of the main studio, where architects and digital-graphics specialists are perched at desks teeming with flat screens and design books. Virtually all Eliasson's projects pass back and forth through these physical and digital stages. Frequently, when he has an inspiration, a few maquettes are made that give a rough idea of how the work will look and feel. Sometimes the team threads small cameras into the models, to get a sense of how they will appear from different perspectives.

Although digital simulation has played an ever-increasing role in Eliasson's creative process—both because technology has improved and because his projects have grown more architectural—the essence of his practice remains the spatial relationship between the viewer and his work, be it an object, the defined space or both. "I come from a generation of artists who feel art should be placed in society, not be an outside reflection of society," he explains. "If you engage with a work, the object will change, and the object will change you. So art becomes the coproducer of reality." His 2005 installation Your Black Horizon, for instance, executed for the Venice Biennale in collaboration with London architect David Adjaye, replicated the precise light conditions of an entire Venetian day in a narrow horizontal band along the wall of an otherwise pitch-black pavilion, in effect compressing the whole sky into a horizon line and 24 hours into 15 minutes.

Eliasson is obsessed with the notion of engagement—how a piece resonates with a viewer, and often vice versa—and precisely positions his structures within an exhibition for maximum impact. This engagement is the true focus of his artworks, more so than their ostensible subjects and the technology behind them. For instance, although Eliasson's pieces often involve scientific research or evoke phenomena such as mist, wind and sunlight, he says he's not particularly passionate about either science or nature. "I'm really just interested in art and people, in pushing the boundary between what we know and what we think we know," he declares. "Pursuing all these ideas has brought me into fields like optics. But optics are only my methodology to get closer to the eye and to the mind." The little reading he has done for his work, Eliasson says, has been on Gestalt psychology, which examines the way in which the human brain combines myriad impulses and sensations to perceive single objects.

In person, Eliasson has a quiet intensity, yet he is also easygoing, clearly at home with himself and his success. Much of his ease, he suggests, comes from the steady upward trajectory his career has taken. A poor student in high school, Eliasson spent six years at the Royal Danish Academy of Art, in Copenhagen, graduating in 1995. That same year he had his first shows with Berlin's Galerie Neugerriemschneider and New York's Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, both of which still represent him. "I had my debut exhibition in Copenhagen, in 1992," Eliasson says, "and I never had a moment where there was a huge change, even if the Tate exhibition meant a lot of non-art-related people came to know my work." He's referring to The Weather Project of 2003–04, for which he created a stripped-down version of the earth's atmosphere—the sun represented by low-sodium lights, sometimes obscured by misty clouds—inside the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. In the course of half a year, more than 2 million people saw the installation.

Eagerly sought after by institutions worldwide, Eliasson has shows booked through 2010, so he must keep many projects running concurrently. "The studio is not really a production unit," he says. "It's more like a laboratory." As certain experiments come to fruition, he slots them into the exhibition context that will best serve them. Like any laboratory, Eliasson's studio has some projects that progress quickly while others stall despite his relentless attempts to realize them. "We've been trying for two years to make a stringed instrument," he says. "To be honest, I'm not really interested in music, just in seeing if one could make an architectural or spatial dimensionality out of the different air waves produced by an instrument. Maybe in the end it will not be like an instrument at all."

"In the Studio: Olafur Eliasson" comes to ARTINFO from the June 2007 issue of Art & Auction magazine.