The Phaidon Folio

“Without the Viewer There is Nothing”: Olafur Eliasson on Positioning the Audience and the Notion of Reality


“Without the Viewer There is Nothing”: Olafur Eliasson on Positioning the Audience and the Notion of Reality
Image via Dezeen

Since the mid-1990s, Olafur Eliasson’s multifaceted work—spanning sculpture, installation, photography, painting, and film—has strived to actively engage and inspire questioning and heightened consciousness in his audience. The Icelandic-Danish artist has created numerous gallery exhibits and site-specific public installations, engaging both intentional viewers and society at large in artworks that consider climate change, sustainability, nature, weather, geometry and physics, motion, sense of self, and bodily experience.

From enormous, cascading waterfalls built both along the banks of New York’s East River (The New York City Waterfalls, 2008) and in the Grand Canal of Versailles (Waterfall, 2016) to a representation of the sun, sky, and weather in the Tate’s Turbine Hall (The Weather Project, 2003) to an ongoing attempt to create a paint pigment for every nanometer of the visible light spectrum (Color Experiment Paintings), Eliasson’s work is conceptual, experimental, and highly engaging on many levels.

This October, Phaidon will release Olafur Eliasson: Experience, a survey of nearly three decades of his career created in concert with the artist (available for pre-order now). In anticipation of Experience, we have revisited his 2000 conversation with Daniel Birnbaum from Phaidon’s 2002 monograph, in which Eliasson discusses perception, perspective, and the concept of reality in his work.

Olafur Eliasson: Experience, available for pre-order now on Phaidon.

To start, I’d like to ask you about the position of the viewer in your work. Many of your works can be seen from various perspectives. This is often, or maybe always, the case in art, but it seems that you’re very conscious of it in your work. And sometimes the changing perspective is the theme of the piece. The work in your exhibition ‘Your intuitive surroundings versus your surrounded intuition’ at the Art Institute of Chicago (2000), for example, had two parts, which could be seen from different perspectives.

‘Your intuitive surroundings versus your surrounded intuition’ was very much about the museum building itself. I had the feeling there that when the viewers finally got to the exhibition area, they would have lost their sense of orientation. When you enter the museum from the street level you walk up and down several flights of stairs, and going through the museum is quite labyrinthine. By the time you’ve gotten to my work you don’t even know what floor you’re on—you may even be in the basement. Outside the window there’s a kind of train depot, which looks like a bridge. Looking out this window you feel as if you’re up quite high, but in fact the ‘bridge’ is on the street level. I wanted to point out that some buildings have the ability to remove the sense of orientation from the viewer, and that alters the way we see whatever we’re looking at in the building.

Room with artificial sky from 'The mediated motion' (2001) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

For my show at the Kunsthaus Bregenz (‘The mediated motion,’ 2001), it was extremely clear exactly where you were located in the building as you moved around my work, whereas the Art Institute in Chicago had the exact opposite quality. So I was playing with this sensation of being lost, and when you finally find what you’re looking for, you’ve lost your sense of orientation. This is why I made an artificial garden and artificial sky just outside the window (Succession, 2000); something to stand on and something to stand behind, except that these were outside, so you couldn’t actually step out and stand there.

One way to describe Succession would be to say that you lowered the sky, and…

Raised the floor, yes.

And both were equally artificial in a way, although the ground seemed at first glance to be closer to nature—it was outside and it was actually grass. But one could see that it was artificial, that it had some kind of scaffolding.

Succession at the Art Institute of Chicago (2000). Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

In a way it seems that this piece is typical of what you’ve been doing for some time, in the sense that by changing the perspective you can completely change what you see. When you see the grass through the glass, it becomes almost like an image. It’s no longer something that’s given directly in any way; it’s really a representation.

Yes. Looking out the window might work in the same way as being inside a museum, where everything is presented as if it’s isolated from its time, history and context. Looking at a piece of Chinese pottery in a glass vitrine, you tend to see it as if it were in a frame; it becomes a picture, rather than a piece of porcelain that you can actually use or touch or sense in a more tactile way. Being in a museum, you have the feeling entering the space that there will be a garden outside, but the real outside conditions—the wind, the temperature, the birds or the sound of the trains in this case—whatever is outside, won’t be there. Is the grass outside real or not? Is it a representation (museum piece) or is it reality (non-museum piece)?

It seems that your works often make clear that there isn’t a sharp line between presentation and representation; that there are many levels—things can be more or less directly presented. You can enter several layers of representation and it becomes more and more unreal.

Or it becomes more and more real. The question with institutions such as museums is, are we seeing reality or are we just seeing pictures; when we look at a piece of armour or a Buddha, or projects such as mine, are they real? The point is that the museum in particular, and the world in general, try to communicate things as if they were real. And I try to show that there’s a much higher level of representation than first anticipated in a museum. So what we actually see isn’t real at all but artifice or illusion. And going to the next window in the space you can easily see the scaffolding in the train depot raised to a height of two or three floors, and my garden is indeed an artificial lawn, even though it’s real grass.

One can use this as a simple critique of the way in which our surroundings try to convey themselves as reality. For example, in Denmark there’s this thing called Legoland, and Legoland is this miniature plastic toy copy of something real. And in Legoland there’s something called Lego Skagen. Skagen is the most northern point of Denmark, which is an idyllic fishing village. And the question is, which is more real: the mini-Skagen in Legoland, or the Skagen up in northern Denmark? Of course mini-Skagen in Legoland is more real, because it’s not trying to be an illusion. It’s not pretending that it’s real, like the village up in the north of Denmark where it’s all reconstructed in the early twentieth-century language of a remote fishing village where you can visit and have…

An authentic experience?

So-called authentic. So the question is, what is more real? And what is more representational? Of course Legoland is extremely representational, but it’s not trying to hide it. And this is what I mean with the museum. It’s in fact very representation, but it’s also trying to hide it to a certain extent. This is how I saw the grass outside the window, or the lowered sky, in the sense that the windows actually take away our surroundings, or they take them further away than Philip Johnson did with his Crystal Cathedral, or Mies van der Rohe with his Farnsworth House in the north of Chicago, where the surroundings appear to enter the building. I think of it as the isolation of our senses; our surroundings are being taken to a higher level of representation, and therefore taken away.

In the piece in the ‘Carnegie International 1999/2000’ in Pittsburg (Your natural denudation inverted, 1999) the same things were negotiated. Here there was also some kind of so-called natural phenomenon that was built on a very obvious construction—the scaffolding again—this water surface and a noisy geyser. Is it a geyser?

I guess you can see it as a geyser, but it was actually the heating system of the building.

So everything was in fact completely technological—everything was part of some sort of machine. But on one level one could also see it as a joke or at least a comment on natural phenomena. And there again the viewer had the same experience of shifting perspectives: once you entered the museum and you saw Your natural denudation inverted through the glass, it became a still-life image as it were, or a photograph.

Exactly, particularly because of the steam. It was a formal garden setting with a big surface covered with water, and in the center was a steam column sort of rising up through the water. It would be very noisy if you were outside in the courtyard and actually stood face-to-face with the piece; you’d hear the strong sound of the steam, as if it was being pushed through a nozzle. But, when you were inside, it was silent, even though you had the sense that the work was obviously quite loud and aggressive. The wind would blow the steam in various directions, and even though the steam illustrated the wind changing direction you were totally isolated from a physical and sensual engagement with the conditions of the piece. So in this case, also in a museum, it was like looking at a painting through the glass, and you tended to see it as a picture rather than an actual experience. 

Your natural denudation inverted at Carnegie International 1999/2000, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg. Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

But it’s a little more ambiguous than this, and I think talking about it like this can limit the piece rather than open it up. The point is, if we know we’re looking through a window, it’s great, it’s OK. If we know we’re looking at a TV it’s OK. But if we think we’re looking at the ‘real’ thing, it’s a problem.

Could this be compared in some way to Brechtian Verfremdung, where you always show the tools? One could say that some of your pieces initially lure the spectator into a romantic position of believing in something, or rather of being part of an overwhelming almost natural experience, only to find a few seconds later that it was part of a machine?

Yes, I think so. Just as people once walked into a church saw a ceiling painting, and were for a moment tricked by the illusion that the ceiling reached infinitely upwards. Or like The Truman Show (1998) when Jim Carrey’s character sails into the end of his world, and finds that it was in fact a stage set. I think there’s a subliminal border where suddenly your representational and your real position merge, and you see where you ‘really’ are, your own position.

Is it also about reminding the viewer that he or she is actively contributing to the experience? In a way you remind the viewer, when you force someone to change perspective and see things in a completely new way, that their experience is unique and that they’re not just someone who, in a neutral kind of way, enters into a situation. The meaning of the situation is dependent upon who you are and where you’re standing.

Yes, exactly. I think the situation lies with the viewer. Without the viewer the readings of the piece could be endless. So with each viewer the readings and the experience are nailed down to one subjective condition; without the viewer there is, in a way, nothing.

Is that why so many of your piece are called, say, Your sun machine (1997) or other titles that start with ‘Your;’ who is ‘you’ here? Is it the viewer? Are you implying that you’re somehow handing over responsibility to the viewer?

Yes, it’s from me to everybody, or from me to you. I consider the works as sort of ‘phenomena-producers,’ like machines, or stage sets, producing a certain thing in a more or less illusory way. Then the question becomes, when do you reveal the illusion? If you look closely at Your natural denudation inverted (1999) in Pittsburgh you can actually see the heating tube going across the wall in the corner of the courtyard. So there’s a certain moment where people go ‘Aha!’; the moment they say ‘Aha!’ they see themselves. 

Your natural denudation inverted at Carnegie International 1999/2000, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg. Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

We don’t always see the machinery as objective; we see ourselves as part of the machine because it’s our machine. We see not only the theater but the machinery behind it. You’re reminded of the fact that this is all spectacle. The art critic and curator Charles Esche recently said that he wants to be completely open about how an art project happens; why not keep the space open while you construct the show? And in the development of video art, people were very interested, early on, in the illusionism, but then at some point, Bruce Nauman, say, would show us the projection, the whole construction, how the work had been produced. And someone today like Diana Thater does exactly that: she emphasizes the fact that she’s interested not in the illusion itself but rather in the construction of the illusion. One could see your work as related to that of Robert Irwin or James Turrell, who work with light and space; you’re interested in those very beautiful and even sensational effects, but you never hide the machinery, and the resulting effects are just as valid.

A lot of artists work in this way, I think the reason you want to show the machines is to remind people that they’re looking. At certain times you can sit in a cinema and become so engaged with the film that you kind of join the level of representation, but then the next moment you flip back out. And I think the ability to go in and out of the work—showing the machinery—is important today. My work is very much about positioning the subject.

Corner extension (version 1), IASPIS, Stockholm (2000). Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

I’d like to go back to the other works in Stockholm, Corner extension (2000) and the first version of what later became Seeing yourself seeing (2001), because they seem to deal in a very clear way with the ideas that we’ve already been talking about. They’re absolutely about the position of the viewer. With very subtle means Corner extension more or less forces you to think about yourself as you try to find the spot where everything comes into focus. You’re reminded of the fact that no experience is just a neutral experience: it always depends upon you. Again, it’s about the viewer’s position, about the viewer. The other piece—Seeing yourself seeing—is perhaps the most subtle piece and so simple. It shows certain paradoxes of what it is to be a subject: you look at this small glass, which is also partly a mirror, and you can either look through it or you see yourself, but you can never do both at once.

Right, right.

You can pretend, with a small syncope, that you see yourself seeing, but it’s very hard to be a subject, or rather very hard to be a self-reflecting subject. Either you look through, and then you’re a subject looking for something else, or you look at yourself, and you turn yourself, into an object, a mirror image.

Both pieces remind you of the fact that you’re an experiencing mind, that you’re a subject—you are subject and object…

Both at once. In a sense, our spatial history has given us a language with which we see, and this language dominates our way of seeing. Like you say, the pieces discuss whether it’s possible to be a subject, and whether you’re being forced to see in a certain way.

 Seeing yourself seeing at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, Germany (2001). Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson. 

At a center point you can almost get the feeling for a moment that it’s not you looking at the artwork. Sometimes the works are so subtle that they become an inverted visual experience, and it’s the other way round: you’re being seen by the situation. You’re not only a productive, phenomenologically active subject, you’re also produced by the piece. You become the subject-object, that ambiguous space where, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty would say, everything takes place.

I agree; you could even call it a double perspective. Of course the wall itself doesn’t look at you, but the moment you go ‘Aha!’—what I was saying before—you see yourself from the point of view of the wall. I did two pieces (Your blue afterimage exposed and Your orange afterimage exposed, both 2000), where I projected light on a wall, and the light gradually got stronger and stronger, until after ten or twelve seconds of looking at it, the light would disappear. The after-image, an imprint of the light on the wall, would be stamped on your retina. What happens then is that you actually project a reversed image with your eye, a complementary image, and for a moment you’ve been turned into a projector. This is how the piece can look back at us, create something in us. I like the idea of us being the light projector, projecting the piece onto the space.

Your blue afterimage exposed at Masataka Hayakawa Gallery, Tokyo (2000). Image via Olafur Eliasson. 

Suddenly you also recognize the screen upon which something is projected as both passive and active.

The reason I think it’s important to exercise this double-perspective phenomenon is that our ability to see ourselves seeing—or to see ourselves in the third person, or actually to step out of ourselves and see the whole set-up with the artefact, the subject and the object—that particular quality also gives us the ability to criticize ourselves. I think this is the final aim: giving the subject a critical position, or the ability to criticize one’s own position in this perspective.

It’s not just a sort of game?

No, it’s about structures that pretend or make us believe that we’re outside, experiencing the piece, but in fact we’re inside, behind the glass, not experiencing anything other than an image.

There are two projects that would be interesting to discuss from this perspective. The first is the very early piece Beauty (1993), which has been produced in a few different versions; it shows that many of these themes were already present early on in your work. The other is a later piece shown at Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles, called Your sun machine (1997). Could you explain Beauty?

Technically speaking it’s a water-curtain of tiny drops and a lamp projecting onto the water at a certain angle. If you’re located in the right spot, a spectral phenomenon similar to a rainbow occurs in the water drops. Since the rainbow is obviously dependent on the angle between the water, the light and your eye, if the light doesn’t go onto your eyes, there’s no rainbow. This piece became important for me because, for the first time, it made it obvious that the spectator is the central issue. The person, the subject looking at the spotlight through the raindrops, is the issue. The water and the light and everything else are just water and light; it’s nothing really.

And the same thing, though a little more abstract, is true of Your sun machine. I cut a hole in the corrugated metal roof of the Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles, and a round sunspot entered in the morning on the left side of the gallery. During the course of the day this spot would travel diagonally through the space and at the end of the day eventually disappear. People would come into the space and they would turn this sunspot into an object. It’s not the same thing as the rainbow, but…

Your sun machine in the Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles (1997). Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

No, but they both link to this central topic of reminding the viewer that he or she is there, and that he or she is positioned in a certain place. Beauty does this in a very subtle way: if you step a little bit to the left or the right the piece disappears. The set-up is there, but the phenomenon—that beautiful phenomenon—is gone. That’s a very basic way of showing it.

In Your sun machine it’s about the viewer, but there it’s actually very complex and one can trace several stages. First, you see the hole, an absence; and then you see something that enters through this absence, and you immediately turn it into an object—it’s an image of the sun, or it’s the sun itself. And then you might even see it moving, or at least you’ll understand that it’s moving. And then you’re not only displaced on a psychological, geometrical and maybe phenomenological level, you’re actually moving cosmologically. At some point, if you start thinking about what that piece is about, your position on a small planet called earth is confirmed.

Your sun machine in the Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles (1997). Image via Studio Olafur Eliasson.

That is why I generally say that the spot of light didn’t move, which in fact it didn’t; the gallery moves.

Yes. And you’re moving with your own vehicle, namely the earth.


So that piece brings in literally bigger issues, of space and of our travelling with the earth, and the sun actually not moving at all.

For every experience there’s a set of rules or conditions, and these conditions can be set by me or by the spectator, or by other people.


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