Friday, July 15, 2011

Designer of the Month: Olafur Eliasson

Week 2

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark to Icelandic parents, Olafur Eliasson spent his early years traveling between parents in both countries.[1] He lived for a year in Cologne, Germany as well as Berlin before receiving a degree from the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in 1995.[2] He moved back to Berlin in 1995, where he has since maintained a studio whose current team consists of about 35 people[3]. This multi-national upbringing seems to have endowed Eliasson with the desire to create work that transcends cultural boundaries, focusing instead on the universal similarities of the various ways in which we perceive and relate to time and space.

Olafur Eliasson, Your strange certainty still kept, 1996. Water, strobe lights, acrylic, foil, pump, hose, and wood. Installation view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, 1996. The Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens. Courtesy of MoMA.
In a dark gallery, water circulates through a low-tech plumbing system consisting of a perforated hose, a basin, and connective piping. Droplets of water noisily rain down from the hose fixed to the ceiling; the basin collects the water and redirects it through a pump. Strobe lights attached to the ceiling capture droplets as they descend, making them seem frozen in time.[4]
I've chosen Your strange certainty still kept (1996) as the first of Eliasson's works that I want to discuss not only because it's an early example, but also because it serves as such a wonderful point of reference for all of his creations. First, Eliasson sets the tone for the work with the darkened space. The only illumination is from the work itself, which means that it entirely and immediately has your full attention. Then there's the mechanics of the work. Both the workings of the piece and the low-tech nature of the setup are very apparent. In all of his works, Eliasson never makes any attempt to hide the mechanics of a piece's production. Finally, the strobe effect, which makes the water droplets appear frozen. Eliasson loves to play with optics, and the strange wonder of his works are such that the viewer is often simultaneously impressed by the cleverness of the phenomenon that's been created and awed by its beauty. As David Birnbaum explains in his essay "Helitrope" in the Take Your Time catalogue, "Eliasson takes great care to make the active role of the viewer apparent. His very titles suggest that the works are part of - or even a product of - the beholder's conscious life. Your strange certainty still kept (1996), Your spiral view (2002), and Your activity horizon (2004) belong to the person seeing them. They belong to you and me."[5]

Olafur Eliasson, Room for one colour, 1997. Monofrequency lights. Installation view at MoMA, 2008. Photograph by Matthew Septimus. Courtesy the artists; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and neugerriemschneidet, Berlin. Courtesy of MoMA.

As may already be very apparent, it's difficult to not want to talk about Eliasson's work in the first person. Because they rely so heavily on the experience of the viewer, it's difficult to really get a sense of it without seeing it in person, and thus finding yourself a part of it. Another great example of Eliasson's work is one that he often opens his exhibitions with: Room for one colour (1997), a space that embodies its name, devoid of all objects, yet filled with a yellow light that seems almost a solid object in and of itself. As Madeleine Grynsztejn explains of this work in her essay "(Y)our Entangelments: Olafur Eliason, The Museum, and Consumer Culture," from the Take Your Time catalgoue: 
Emanating from a ceiling bank of monofrequency bulbs, the thick hue drenches the otherwise empty space and its inhabitants in a yellow-tinted field. At the same time that we are experiencing the color yellow, we are also neurologically compensating for the lack of other colors in the room. As a result, when we look though the space to the next gallery, it seems in the glow of retinal excitement to be bathed in deep purple (yellow's opposite and afterimage) - though the walls are actually white.[6]
It's a clever trick, but one that serves to literally change the viewer's perception of the world.

[1]  Peter Schjeldahl, "Uncluttered: An Olafur Eliasson retrospective," The New Yorker online,, (accessed July 7, 2011).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Olafur Eliasson online, "About the Studio,", (accessed July 7, 20110.

[4] Apsara DiQuinzio, "Projects 1991-2001: Your strange certainty still kept," from Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NewYork: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 64.

[5] David Birnbaum, "Heliotrope," from Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NewYork: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 136.

[6] Madeleine Grynsztejn, "(Y)our Entangelments: Olafur Eliason, The Museum, and Consumer Culture," from Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NewYork: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 15.

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