Olafur Eliasson

For the past 15 years, the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has made art that engages perceptual, ecological, and temporal themes by harnessing such abundant and ephemeral elements as water, light, and mist in installations that typically unfold in public spaces. His best-known work, 2003's The Weather Project, a dramatic optical illusion suggesting the atmosphere of sun at twilight, was created with a few simple materials, including a bank of lights and a mirrored ceiling. The work was installed at London’s Tate Modern, where it reportedly attracted two million visitors, many of them repeat customers, who sprawled out on the public floor and pondered their reflections on the ceiling as they basked in the glow. With its fantastic success, The Weather Project nudged the artist’s work to a new level of public awareness, success, and scrutiny.

This fall, Eliasson’s first major U.S. survey exhibition, “Take your time,” opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The show features more than a dozen installations, photographs, and sculptures arranged in a series of interconnected rooms and corridors (including a new piece that turns the museum’s skylight bridge into the descriptively titled One-way colour tunnel), and it offers an opportunity to engage the artist’s participatory oeuvre in a more sustained manner, through its immersive presentation of linked installations. Meanwhile, “Your tempo,” a concurrent presentation of Eliasson’s recent contribution to the BMW Art Car program—a hydrogen race car encased in ice and housed in an industrial-strength freezer—points to his interests in the environment and the physical experience of perception, as well as a complicated relationship to commerce (the artist also created a major, globally visible 2006 commission for Louis Vuitton when he filled the holiday windows of 350 Vuitton branches with his work Eye See You).

Eliasson spoke to ARTINFO about these concerns, as well as his indebtedness to the California Light and Space artists, during a check-in visit to supervise the labor-intensive installation of his show at SFMOMA.

Olafur, the catalog for this exhibition includes a dialogue between you and Robert Irwin. Is it significant for you that this exhibition is organized in California, where the Light and Space movement emerged?

The West Coast artists of that time had a degree of generosity that has always inspired me. It was not necessarily in their distinct formal agenda or language, but in the polyphony of tolerances embedded in their work. On the other hand, their East Coast contemporaries, like Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt—and I know I’m generalizing—had a more rigorous relationship to right and wrong and established a stronger discourse of criticism.

Irwin still inspires me today. His work was never really embraced by public institutions, because they weren’t ready for its spatial language. His art is often impossible [to handle], so it’s found in few public collections, while almost all include Judd’s more adaptable pieces.

It’s also rare for a museum to take on the challenge of showing the kind of work I do. Normally, I make a single, large, site-specific piece, which is difficult to sell. And no museum wants [a work involving] water on the fifth floor, right on top of a Picasso show. I feel very fortunate to have a large exhibition in a museum like SFMOMA. They really did a lot to make this show work.

One could argue, though, that because The Weather Project was so well attended, you’ve been identified as someone who can activate a museum space in a popular, almost spectacular way. Irwin’s work is much subtler.

I think Irwin’s work is quite “spectacular,” though not in the Disney sort of way the word is usually taken today. And I hope that’s not the case with my work, either. I come from Scandinavia, where people have strong faith in the state and the idea of the public system. We pay a ton of money in taxes, which is not always comfortable, but it represents a fundamental belief in a certain type of democracy. I grew up with a history of civic participation, with cultural institutions having a high degree of ethical responsibility in terms of sharing knowledge and fostering critical debate.

Is the SFMOMA show a survey or more of an installation comprising old and new work?

Both. It shifts depending on who is looking at it. The show’s a mid-career survey, but for most visitors, this is all new work, an all-new composition. I worked a lot with an architect on the exhibition design. In part, this is a matter of ideology, but it’s also a great deal of fun to lay out the works to allow them to become new. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: You can always say that any old work is new because it is seen only in the here and now.

Your art offers wide entry points, making you a kind of “popular artist.”

I’ve always been very proud of being a mainstream artist. I have no interest in being avant-garde if that means that I’m on the outskirts of society. But I would like to see my work live in a resistant way to society. By “resistance,” I mean critical to the market dominance of the art experience.

How so?

In my view, our senses have been manipulated during the past hundred years, so that we believe the world is organized in a certain way. Ideally we would see things much more individually, but the acculturation or commodification of the senses prevents us from doing so. Our senses are not natural, they are culturally produced, and the commodification of our senses has generalized the way we see the world.

Of course, this breaks down into many smaller arguments. One is about temporality. The art market, the auction houses, the galleries, the art fairs, even museums—they have all to some extent deprived art of temporality. The sequence of my installation at SFMOMA, and my involvement with its design, is crucial because it brings temporal ideas into the show. A number of the pieces are slow. The tunnel [over the skylight bridge] has no central way to be seen. You have to walk through in one direction, and then another, to experience it. The idea behind these long tunnels—and the show is really a show of corridors—comes from a desire to mediate temporality.

How do you talk about criticality and resistance in terms of your connections to luxury goods—your projects with Louis Vuitton and BMW?

I get offered all sorts of commissions, and I usually say no when they are related to commerce. But I don’t think one should refuse anything as a rule. The Vuitton project was an amazing invitation. They’re a megabrand—they’re the world—whereas a gallery in Chelsea is very small and, in a sense, much more elitist and exclusive.

So Louis Vuitton asked me to do all their shop windows, and I thought about how I could accept without going against the things I believe in. First, I said that I would do it only if there were no goods in the windows. When they agreed, I asked them to donate the profits to a foundation that my wife and I started in Ethiopia (www.121ethiopia.org). They also agreed to that. They were unbelievably professional about the whole thing.

How about BMW?

I’ve had several invitations from car companies, television companies, and mobile phone companies. It was only when BMW offered access to their scientific, design, future-strategies, and environmental departments in Germany that I decided to get involved. Still, all that knowledge didn’t necessarily fit into the design—or maybe it did in its own contrary way. I ended up doing something completely different and very high-maintenance—very unlike BMW.

The arguments that this project has raised have been extremely interesting: discussions about what design is and what it can do, the question of environmental sustainability, the concept of the transport economy, and the notion that movement in society is linked to environmental questions.

What do you think these companies find so appealing about your work?

They think it’s about profit. I understand this: They would not get involved with art if they didn’t consider it profitable. It’s a question of exchange. I think the art world suffers from an elitism that tends to exclude other parts of the world. The real challenge for an artist is how to get involved, rather than just saying I don’t want to.