Take your time: Olafur Eliasson

Take your time opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney on Thursday, 10th of December. Adam Jasper took the opportunity to speak to Olafur Eliasson about philosophy, environmentalism and the setting sun.

How did Take your time first come into existence?

I have known Madeleine Grynsztejn, the curator from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – who is now director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago – for some years. We've had an ongoing conversation about art and institutions in general, and my work in particular. She proposed the idea of a survey, and I then spent some time deliberating with her on how to pull it off. As I often show only one or two site-specific works at a time, I wanted to determine how one can successfully make a survey without over-generalizing the principles of my work. It was intended from the start that the show should travel to four or five different venues, so the outcome of our discussion was the decision to tailor every show to the specific location. At each venue I have put in or removed, say, three or four works, and reconsidered the sequence in which they're installed.

This sequence includes thinking about the narrative that unfolds, when visitors go from one gallery to another, but also the views from one situation to the next and the threshold between the two. This 'space in-between', this transitional space, is something I find very interesting. When you're about to leave one space, you anticipate what you're about to enter next. Then you step into your own anticipation and the space in which you just were becomes the past – the space you have just entered the present. And this play, this phenomenological attempt to lay out the show, was something I was very much involved in. By questioning the sequence, I can create a dynamic quality or setting for the works and prevent them from canceling each other out. As a result, some galleries are rather empty, while some comparatively speaking are dense or constrained.

This is interesting in terms of the phenomenological preoccupations, or
focus, of your work, but pragmatically, how does one modify a show of
this scale specifically for the MCA in Sydney?

I have modified some of the spaces at the MCA in Sydney by closing off corners, extending walls or making partition walls – but similar changes were made for every show on this tour. Integrating the work into the architecture is always a challenge, and I think it's important to ask whether or not the institution allows an architectural statement to be integrated into the actual tissue of the museum. In order to address architectural questions within an art institution one has to raise the question of ideology and consider all the communicative strategies that have an impact on the work from press, marketing, catalogue and wall texts, down to details such as the spirit of the guided tour or the way you enter the exhibition space. Often, it's almost an obstacle course: the visitor has to go through the coat check, buy a ticket, maybe fill out a form, then to the elevators: third floor, Renaissance; second floor, posters from the early 20th Century; first floor, maybe a work by me. All this, of course, has an impact on the work. The question is: "To what extent does the museum support an individual understanding of art instead of a normative one?"

Your phrase "integrated into the tissue of the museum" is an interesting one to use. It suggests a biological image of the museum as a living host to the work...

It's important to acknowledge that a museum isn't a neutral space where you display autonomous works of art: The museum colors every exhibition it makes by virtue of its aspirations and inherent intentionalities. Therefore, it's extremely important that it communicates art with a sense of responsibility. These days a lot of cultural institutions, struggling with funding, are being forced to function according to market economical principles. As a result, they operate with blockbuster visitor raters and, let's say, take on very aggressive branding strategies. This of course influences the everyday life of the museum: You often see the museum shop before you even enter the museum, and if the shop is not the first thing you see, it's definitely the last one.

I'm very sceptical of this development. Not of consumerism per se, but rather of the re-organisation of our senses induced by our going into a consumer driven environment just before entering an art environment. I find the normative spirit of market driven approaches counterproductive to the experience of art.

Can you sketch the ideal perspective, or the ideal attitude a viewer should bring to the show?

In my studio I don't say "viewer", I normally say "the user". The idea of the ideal viewer is a sort of paradox, the ideal viewer would be the non-ideal viewer. It's the same paradox, the same contradiction, that you have when you try to make rules about non-normativity.

I try and work keeping the idea of different people in a space in mind, allowing for polyphonic experiences, different cultures and different heritages. I know it sounds kind of banal, but I always try to re-emphasize the idea of respecting a non-normative reading of the work at hand. I've often tried to talk about reversing the perspective so that by looking at a work of art, by using a space, you not only produce the space but the space also produces an effect, and thereby co-produces a work of art.

When you say "using a space", are you referring to the way in which individuals can shift their position and consequently shift their view? Is "using a space" really just a sort of trajectory they can undertake?

The reason why I prefer "user" is that "viewer" or "spectator" refers more to the act of thinking and less to the body. Vision is disconnected from the other senses. By putting more emphasis on the body, I hope to upgrade the physical component of the works. I would like to consider walking through a show of mine as a dance. I would never refer to it like that, because a dance is a completely different thing, but nevertheless I would sometimes think of my show in this way.

In this discussion it is as if we are exclusively talking about being alone with your work. It's interesting that as a side effect of the popularity of your work there are always other people, and sometimes very many of them, present at your shows.

This is a very good point, and something my students [at the Institut für Raumexperimente, Berlin University of the Arts] address a lot.

Art-historically speaking, we stand on the shoulders of generations for whom looking at art was considered such an intimate act that having somebody else in the space would completely compromise the experience. This comes out of a spiritual, almost church-like approach to modern art where solitary contemplation was considered the only right thing. Collective experience seems to be presented to people as a compromise, but there is nothing contradictory about the idea of being together with other people in the exhibition space and still have a strong experience. Sometimes this experience is even generated because the artwork doesn't polarize individuality and collectivity.

OK. Let me read you a quote from Robert Irwin, one that seems relevant here, one that you have used yourself: "I have sensed a danger in phenomenology's being presented as a kind of truth; there's a tendency to detach experience from social context by justifying it as a phenomenological situation". Surely just having other people in the room is not, on its own, enough to make the work a communal experience?

This question is also about the attitude of the museum. Museums often cultivate an exclusive approach, meaning that a more social setting makes visitors uncomfortable and suddenly you cannot bear to look at a Robert Ryman painting, or whatever. I think a communal experience depends as much on the hospitality of the museum as on the quality of the work of art. There are some very generous museums – but not many! – that are capable of being inclusive, but this is only because they are fully aware of their own ideological framework.

I think that technology has presented us with a fantastic toolbox to address more complex questions than we have addressed before: urban questions, city planning questions and ideas about public space. I use phenomenology almost like a purifying tool in relating to technology. I use it as a kind of neo-spiritual, autonomous idea–I'm not at all a theoretically trained person so what I say, I say as a practitioner.

The point is that there are so many often commercial interests detached from the idea of experience, from the idea of society. There is a whole experience economy that I am struggling a great deal with. The experience economy is very quick to pick up on my work. It's much easier for the experience economy to pick up on my work than it is for me to run away from the experience economy. I have to work much harder to keep my distance.

Some of the people that I've spoken to about the exhibition have hinted that, for them, arguing that a work is at the same time both beautiful and subversive is difficult. Your work is often, in the strict sense of the word, sublime. Can you be politically potent as an observer of society and social constructions, even if you are making aesthetically pleasing art?

I think so, yes [laughter]. The point is that beauty provides an entrance into the work. I like the fact that something beautiful can address many people and I think it's great if a lot of different people encounter my work. You can say that I have an interest in the mainstream, in not appearing avant garde. When I did The weather project at Tate Modern in London in 2003, I was obviously playing with this idea of beauty. On the other hand, the work was also very easy to dissect: one could see the scaffolding, the mirror foil, the lamps and so on. I don't have any concerns regarding beauty as long as it is closely linked to our ability to also deconstruct it. The subversive nature of a given artwork partially lies in its apparent construction. It also depends on your ability to reflect upon your way of seeing. My work doesn't offer a way of verbalizing political discontent, but it's political, I think, in the sense that it addresses the necessity to be critical.

In many places, art is still detached from society, living on a representational planet. One needs to emphasize the importance of integrating art into society. As I usually say: Art is not a step out of society, it rather marks a step into society.

I work a lot with cultural geographers, city planners, urban theorists and politicians. Or rather, I do not work with politicians, but I talk a lot with politicians. I'm trying to take advantage of the exposure that I have had to institute the values that I find important. When I did The New York City Waterfalls last year, I worked very closely with the Mayor of New York. Michael Bloomberg is a man who has taken commerce to an extreme, creating incredible business models. In the beginning of the project, he wasn't very sensitive to the values about public space that I wanted to address with the waterfalls. But in the process of discussing what a non-normative response is, and how the differences between people can be a potential and not a threat, it turned out that Mayor Bloomberg is a very open-minded person. I think the toolbox that artists carry around can be very useful in situations where city planning has run its head against a wall.

From what you've said – and I just want to know if I'm following you correctly – there is a universality implicit in the experience of beauty. Beauty allows you to reach a broader community, and create a wider political experience, than a confrontation with ugliness would allow, because presenting the ugly is still critique but a narrow one...

No – and I do not want to criticize a more narrow approach. It's just that I don't see the two as conflicting, I would say they are parallel. Nor is my work universal in that sense, because my agenda is to fight the utilitarian view that always has to find an end-purpose for art.

Do you have any concrete observations or examples of ways in which cultural reception differs?

Well, for instance, when you are closer to the equator, the sun sets closer to the perpendicular of the horizon. This means that sunsets are incredibly short. The people who live in such regions have little knowledge, or little cultural attachment to twlight.

People who live closer to the poles have a proportionally greater period of twilight because the sun sets at a sharper angle to the horizon. In Siberia or Canada or Iceland you have twilight for maybe three or four or five hours. In the summer the twilight of the evening meets the twilight of the morning so that the night is made of twilight. Furthermore, the individual constellation of your relations to time and light are, depending on whether you are a farmer or a city worker or a banker, very different.

If I now make a work of art and then show it in Canada and then show it in Italy, say in Palermo, and the work is about nuances of twilight (I have not made such a work but now I feel like maybe I should) of course the reading of the work would be very different. If I believed in universal truths I would then start talking about which one was better or worse, and problematizing half of that group as the people "who don't get it", that would be a big mistake, because the difference between Palermo and Canada is of course what makes the work interesting. The discrepency between the two experiences is part of the potential of the work. To go further, I would like to make the suggestion that your relationship with twilight is a question of culture and not a question of nature.

The "role of nature" is often discussed in your work. On the one hand your installations very often invoke natural phenomena, on the other hand you highlight the artificiality of the constructions, you leave the scaffolding visible, you reveal the underpinnings of the illusion. Can you speak a little bit about your idea of how nature and the artificial relate?


To make it more specific: do you think there is a sense in the West that ecology has been fetishized as something entirely external to humanity that is only vulnerable? A picture that presents humanity as external to nature. This creates a kind of a notion of multiple layers of nature, one that is pure, and that is constructed, and perhaps an intermediary one that is domesticated.

This is a complex question – it could take up a whole interview! Our relationship with the environment and the climate is getting more explicit as we finally realize that it can be negotiated, that our actions have direct consequences for our surroundings and the climate.

When I was younger, 'Nature' was considered something externalized, non-negotiable, partly romantic, partly ephemeral, whereas most people in the Western world have now realized that Nature cannot stand alone, but is very vulnerable and responsive to the way we deal with it. In a quite remarkable story [Sphären III – Schäume, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004)], Peter Sloterdijk writes about the introduction of gas in World War One. It's trench warfare, defined by people shooting with rifles at one another and there are bullets, with their trajectories, and shells, with theirs. Suddenly, one side chooses to throw a gas grenade at the other. The soldiers in the other trench, they were just breathing and they thought that breath was to be taken for granted. All of a sudden, the soldiers on the other side cannot breathe; from being taken for granted, air – or precisely the lack of air – becomes explicit. I think something analogous has happened with my generation.

This is very interesting. I become very aware of the artificiality of digital media whenever I confront an error. When there is a feedback, packet loss, or the voice is cut up into blips. That makes it explicit that this is a totally analysed and then synthesized experience. Is there as sense with your installations that error plays a role, that the possibility of error, or the inclusion of error, is a productive tool?

In my studio, or my laboratory as I sometimes call it, I experiment a lot. An experiment failure can turn out to be successful in its own way; maybe it opens perspectives that I otherwise wouldn't have thought about at all. If you really are to experiment, you cannot predict the outcome beforehand. The production of ideas, the production of reality and fooling around are inseparable. Concluding that reality is what is left when you take playfulness or making mistakes out leaves us with very little. The museums need to be open to this. If people walk backwards through an exhibition, they might have justifiable grounds for doing so. The behavioral and social control indirectly exercised by museums should allow for the possibility of looking at a work upside down, maybe standing on your head.

I visited your studio in Berlin, and was struck by your conscious attempts to both break down the conventional production model of the studio, and conventional institutional model of the university class. I found myself wondering whether or not it would be better to destroy the conventional art school, and replace painting and sculpture with genetic engineering and industrial design and computer science. Can you tell me more about the extent to which you see the institution as being open to being recreated?

Due to its obsession with formal questions, traditional art education has, I believe, failed to acknowledge the fact that creativity is a producer of reality. The inflexible categories of 'teacher' and 'student', working in a sealed-off environment, and the fundamentally unequal relation between the two, have taken responsibility away from the students, distancing them from real work in real life. But to study and to produce knowledge shouldn't imply a withdrawal from society. Just as my works and studio participate in a continual exchange with their environment, with the times in which they exist, so does the school. At the Institut für Raumexperimente I try to provide the participants with tools for the creation of artistic propositions that have consequences for the world. We must embrace re-evaluation, criticism and friction.

Is it in general wiser to take people with bachelors degrees in science and put them into art schools, or take people with degrees in fine arts and put them into scientific laboratories? Which approach do you think would be more productive?

Neither, necessarily. The 'art & science' discussion is huge, of course, and I'm involved with it in my school right now, but the question doesn't really do the topic justice. Clearly, it depends very much on the person, on his or her perspectives and interests. In one way, I wish the borders between the disciplines could be dissolved completely. However, it turns out that every time one steps into different fields, one realizes that art is, after all, highly unique. I'm a strong believer in trans-educational principles, involving all the disciplines. But I also think that one needs to critically examine the seemingly strong history of collaborations between art and science. A scientific principle or methodology can be used to create a work of art and I have worked with a lot of scientists myself, but this is not the same as merging art and science. Fundamentally, art is art and science is science.

Is there a request that you would make of your viewers in Sydney, a presence of mind that you would ask them to have when first engaging with your work? For many people it will be the very first time they see it in something other than reproduction.

I'm incredibly happy that I will now be able to present my works in Australia. I do not want to influence people too much, but the title of the show actually expresses the presence of mind I would ask them to have. The title is very much about the museum's systematization of temporality. A surprisingly homogenous temporal pace is suggested for looking at art. You would expect it to be different, but if you were to measure how much time people typically spend looking at this or that painting at The MCA, there is an odd coherence.

I think to we need to reframe our sense of temporality. We need to look into ourselves, and ask "what is the time I assign to doing this or that." I would like to see some people run, literally jog through the exhibition, and I would like to see some bringing their sleeping bags and maybe live in the installation for a day or two. I can see that this would cause some problems for the institution, but I'm an artist and that's what I'm here for.

Take your time doesn't just mean "oh, let's slow down a little bit", it also means take your time back, reclaim it, because the incredible standardization of temporal components in our society has had a huge impact on our senses, on the way we use our senses. Our senses are temporal by definition. The suggestion that you should take your time has to do with the idea of individualizing experience and suggesting that a non-normative museum is more productive since it doesn't offer pre-packaged experiences.

Thank you for your time.