Olafur Eliasson on Mapping Iceland and the Hidden Histories of Driftwood

Olafur Eliasson on Mapping Iceland and the Hidden Histories of Driftwood
Installation View, Olafur Eliasson "Volcanos and Shelters" at neugerriemschneider, Berlin 2012
(© Olafur Eliasson 2012 courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin)

Last week Olafur Eliasson opened his sixth show at Berlin’s neugerriemschneider, a return to his interest in the photograph’s ability to map landscape, as well as a synthesis of his 2010 exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau and around the city of Berlin. The photographs — “Volcano Series” (2012) and “The Hut Series” (2012) — were on view concurrently at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar along with a similar series of Icelandic hot springs until Superstorm Sandy unleashed her wrath on the US East Coast early this week, leaving Bonakdar’s neighbors Eyebeam still with three inches of standing water as of Wednesday evening.

At neugerriemschneider, Eliasson couples these photographs with three driftwood sculptures similar to that 2010 exhibition, this time with mirrors to initiate a signature pointing of the works’ effect directly back towards the viewer. A series of oceanic maps covered in hand-poured glass also features prominently in the exhibition, with the glass fluctuating from a thickness that blurs the image below to points so thin one might break through with a slight tap. ARTINFO Germany’s Alexander Forbes caught up with Eliasson during the opening to talk about documenting the Icelandic landscape, the similarities between driftwood and humanity, and turn of the century geo-politics.

You haven’t made such exhaustive photo series in quite some time. What led you back to this cartographic process of photography?

I have done fewer photographs in recent years, frankly because I have two small children, now 6 and 9 years old. That has simply changed the economy of time in my life. The more contemplative trips to Iceland where I travel by myself for long periods of time simply haven’t been possible. Now, both of my children are in school, which means that things have become a little more predictable. This made it possible to travel to Iceland four times in April and May, which gave me enough momentum and consistency to work in a focused manner on a photo series.

On the other hand, you’re showing three driftwood sculptures that are inherently related to your 2010 show at the Martin Gropius Bau. But, I was curious about the combination of the mirrors with these driftwood logs, which you find on the Icelandic shore.

With the mirrors, I’m trying to build a bridge between the Berliner Treibholz that I placed in the street of Berlin and a lot of other works. I love the way the driftwoods are shaped and how they look. They represent a notion of something suspended slightly out of reach. It’s like a murmur. They are sort of victims or witnesses of polar currents. As objects, they have this incredible story built into them. I see this lonely piece of wood on the beach which is otherwise just rocks, a nomad which has traveled all the way from Siberia or North America to get to the Icelandic coast. That is very exciting. You stand there and you see the time that it took for the piece to get there. I like objects that perform their own presence as they exist before you but also tell you a lot about the conditions under which they came to be there. That has some resemblance to life: We have to cultivate a responsibility to say and make clear from where we come. There is a culture that is obsessed with presence and who you are in the moment. But that is really only interesting when you see where something or someone is really coming from.

With use of the mirror, there is a really interesting shift that makes the driftwood much more contemplative than these were when you placed them around the Berlin streets. You have this implicit sense of travel and movement, but it doesn't give you a map to where they’ve been. It reflects quite directly on the viewer, maybe suggesting that we too hold such a dually hidden and apparent history.

It’s also interesting for its own delusive or dematerializing qualities. You look at a mirror and you just have to work a little bit harder than if it were a wall, or a plate, or a painting to figure out exactly what shape and scale you’re actually looking at. It’s a little bit like the Icelandic landscape, where you hardly have any trees or roads to indicate scale.  You look at it and you wonder if the point ahead is three hours, three days, or three weeks away. The scale of what you’re looking at doesn’t initially register. The mirror works in the same way. If you look at it without moving, you have a hard time understanding exactly what’s going on. This is why they’re installed on a tilt, or in triangular or circular shapes. But, once you start to move around it, once you allow temporality to co-produce what you see, then you understand their shape, what they’re doing physically, and how your body is somehow active within that space. They ask you to give something. And in a way you can even use them to look inside of yourself if you are clever or close enough to yourself.

The last series of works you are showing are maps covered in hand-made, colored glass. Much of your work is quite cartographic, but to both work directly with these maps and then to obscure them either with inconsistences in the surface of the glass itself or the color is a new process. 

I have been collecting maps for many years, as cartography and the history of culture have many overlaps. I am obsessed with this notion of a map representing and making the impossible possible. A map is about making what we cannot see tangible, but it is also an illustration of something that we can never reach. Suddenly you can see the Atlantic Ocean on one piece of paper, which is an impossible place to be in. Besides that, I have worked a lot with glass, and here, they represent something like a pool for me. The idea is that I can allow the map, the glass, and the frame to act like a little theater play. The color you see corresponds to cartographic representations of depth. When you go deeper into the ocean there is less and less light. These maps are actually depth charts. The numbers that you see depict the depth of the water at each particular point. The pieces here really grew out of reading a new book out by Jonathan Ledgard, “Submergence.” It is about what it feels like to be under water and about life under water but also about geo-political issues. The maps that I used are from the turn of the century. During the Industrial Revolution, the Danish military decided to map the ocean floors of the waters around Iceland, primarily, I assume, for militaristic geo-political reasons. The maps aren’t mean to help fishermen but instead have this sinister side to them.