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Similarity and Coloration


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Art Praxis Section



Today I have chosen some  works which I think will have more or less relevance in this context. Just briefly, I was born in Copenhagen, my parents were from Iceland but were studying in Denmark at the time, and I lived a little bit in-between. Then, ten or eleven years ago I finished art school in Copenhagen and I moved down to Berlin and I have been living there since. I came out of art school at a time (in the early nineties) when, at least in Danish art schools, it was slightly apocalyptic, always being about the end of everything in this sort of Postmodern kind of way, but maybe five months behind the rest of the crowd. With the whole Postmodern end of, should I say, sense-making and still having some faith in being able to orient yourself within a context, I had strong faith in making art. I got slightly more involved in the last half of my art school in psychology and in phenomenology and began working with how the participation, or the engagement, or the use of an artwork could actually constitute space. From there, I got more involved with questions about time. This was the mid to early nineties and Deleuze was very exciting at the time,  but as an artist you don’t exactly sit down and study things the same way as a scientist, not very rigorously. I just kind of floated through and picked the parts which I thought would be relevant for me.

Let me start with this piece [360° room for all colours]. This is a round room with a screen inside. Behind the screen there is a red, blue and green lamp. If you walk inside you have this sort of panorama roughly eight meters through. I tried to set up a measurement; how long does it take for an after image to occur? How long does it actually take to have an impact on the eye? So, I tried to do a sequence of fadings with this computer controlled light system so it slowly fades from one color into the other. My sequence, from one color into another, is twenty-eight seconds. It stays on each color for two or three seconds and then fades on so it’s more or less on the move all the time. Fading randomly through different colors of the spectrum, it takes about an hour to go through all the colors and back to the start again. Obviously, you have the complimentary color occurring in your eye. The complimentary color comes with some delay so I have a fade in the space blue to yellow. With the blue space you have the orange afterimage and, after fifteen or twenty seconds, the orange afterimage is so strong that this idea of the blue starts to fade to pastel, then slowly working its way toward white. After another ten seconds, the blue doesn’t really seem blue to us, it is a mixture of both our afterimage and what we know about what we are looking at. But then, the piece starts to fade into another color, so we are then with ‘orange eyes’ so to speak, and then the piece decides to fade from blue to yellow. So then, we have to imagine a fade from orange to the opposite of yellow, which is purple, so our eye starts fading more or less from orange into purple. So we have another fade, a kind of complementary fade, inside our eyes. What the brain notices is not what the eyes actually do or what the space, this round container, actually does, but the brain actually sees a mixture of the two, the average. If we think of it as a diagram, there is one of the space, one of the eyes and then one with the brain, a mixture of the two with a brief delay.

I was interested in these things, not particularly in what exactly goes on with the color in the space, but within the context of art I think this is a worth while argument in terms of: what does it mean to look at things? And, what does an art context offer when discussing individuality or identity? Another person who comes in a little later than me obviously sees something different than me because my afterimage will already be on the move so it is easy to understand that the person next to me will not see the same color. We can be in the same space, we can share that space, we can even constitute a small community in there, and we will all see something different. I guess we would work our way towards something, in which the tendency will be more and more similar, but as our eyes are so fundamentally different we would never see the same. I think about this in terms of how our senses, all together but in this case the eyes and color vision, is being generalized by the overall society. I think this is a nice argument in the sense of trying to introduce the notion of individuality again, or the worthwhile of being different from each other.

This is not a work of mine, but it is just to show this Catholic church in Palermo, Sicily with green windows. People come in, the priest will talk ten minutes, then it becomes more or less white. Coming out of the church in Palermo the street then is, of course, completely red, having sat in there for maybe half an hour or so. So, I’m not the only one working with this.

Lets do a small experiment so you can see what I am talking about. This is a yellow disk…so don’t move your head and try to look at the center of the disk. Try to focus on it for another five or ten seconds. As you look at it you can see how it begins to fade around the edges in particular, that is the afterimage. The complimentary to this yellow disk, the afterimage in this case, should be somewhat purple. Now just keep looking and don’t move your head. If you blink a couple times you can recreate it and by moving your head you can start playing ping pong with the image. It’s funny how it starts sailing around.  You can just do it again with a different one…and now you have the other one on top of that. One can really exercise one’s eyes. You can look through the rest of this light, having the other image on top of the one you are looking at all the time. I’ve been playing around with the people in my studio and these things and trying to see as they now are. I’ve done different experiments and these are, I guess, a kind of classical experiment, to show color and context based things are really not quite as static, and to some extent much more relative and negotiable, than we think.

This idea of making the eye, or the viewer, in the show the person who projects the image onto the thing is also a statement in the sense. I would like to consider the viewer as the constitutional part of an artwork in the sense that the production of the context is really very much dependent on how the person chooses to construct the context. In this way, I made a small piece in Venice two years ago at the Utopia Station [Your utopia, 2003]. I had a camera flash with a little red dot that said press on it, so people would walk up and then press it and it would flash into their eyes this word ‘utopia.’ (it could be any word, it doesn’t really matter), but the next two or three or five minutes people would walk around having that stamp on their retina. So, everything that they would look at they would, so to speak, project onto things. They had turned themselves into a projector.

I tried to make it more physical or almost architectural. This is a subway station in Germany where I very slowly…this takes about two minutes for one color to fade into the other color…have it not just about the eyes but how much time it takes you to walk through those hundred meters, and how do you experience the space as it changes, and so on. The idea that this space (to a much larger degree) is, in fact, negotiable, or relative, or much more dependent on how you use it, is something that I work with in very different contexts.

This is a convex concave mirror [Convex/Concave, 1995/2000]. It is blowup mirror that can be sucked in like a kind of pump, or lungs. I can make this mirror breath very slowly (it takes thirty seconds) and as you stand and look in it, it is quite easy to flip it around, in the sense that you can imagine that the space you are standing in is, in fact, getting smaller and bigger and the mirror doesn’t move. So, you suddenly have this idea of the space in which your standing, but it’s so hard to imagine that a space might change because we know it’s made of concrete. What seems to be going on is that your body gets smaller and bigger. It’s quite intriguing and a very kind of a basic experiment, changing these ‘basics.’

This is a reversed waterfall defying gravity [Reversed waterfall, 1998]. I am trying to turn it upside down (inspired by the Tatlin Utopia Tower) and mixing that with a slightly more gothic suspense of water and the frost in Iceland. I end up where I can say this is an anti-gravity attempt, or at least some kind of ‘unknown’.

This is called The antispective situation [La situazione antispettiva, 2003], like the opposite of perspective situation. Inside it is covered with mirrors so there are these kaleidoscopic suggestions. For cities, from 1915-1920, where the idea of the end of central perspective and the reintroduction of a negotiable dimension (they wouldn’t really go as far as calling it time), were introducing the idea that every time you move, of course everything else moved very quickly. Some of it became very unsuccessful, later in the 20s, and the rest of it didn’t really seem to go further.

This is a thin metal foil of one millimeter polished steel. You can cut it out and bend it around on a bending machine. I think when the eyes don’t have Euclidean geometry set up to refer to, as a special frame of reference, we start to loose our sense of up and down, left and right and balance is hard. So, I lifted up the people from the floor on a kind of grid, on a see-through metal grid. I had to put in a railing, unfortunately, but nevertheless, you are flying so to speak. The mirrors are under you, suggesting some kind of anti-gravity activity in here.

The dematerialization, in this case 1m3 light (this is a very old piece) [1999] was something I was always very curious about. I tried to do that in the sky also. It was less successful, but the idea that I could make space relative was something that I was always very intrigued with and the fact that one could walk though, or go into a container, or go through a tunnel and do something seemed very challenging to me.

This is a tower in which is based on what is called a diamond pattern, or a rhombic pattern [The inverted shadow tower, 2004]. You can see the holes of the squares…and the diamonds are the white ones obviously. The white ones have light inside. They conically disappear backwards so when you’re inside the tower you don’t see the light box as much and the white light fades down and the ambient light in the space fades up. At some point the white lamps are darker than, in this case, the grey squares. What happens is that, at some point, the tower flips. We just saw the construction (the carrying part being the white) and at some point the squares are the tower. We can, with our eyes, flip it around. All the ones with the holes seem to be closer to you and all the diamonds are the ones which seem to be further away.

This is the piece on a corrugated metal roof, in Los Angeles [Your sun machine, 1997]. With a small saw I cut a hole in it. In the morning (in the far right corner), the sun comes in and as the day passes by the sun moves through the room below. It is eight meters to the ceiling, so it actually moves quite fast. It’s interesting. First of all, people in Los Angeles have time to spend in the gallery looking at these things {laughing}… but it’s interesting that it actually does move and you can stand still, look at it, and see that it does actually move. It’s really beautiful to see how that slightly flickering hot light on the floor moves across. As it takes a little bit of time, you have also time to consider (obviously, in fact) that this is not, as we believe, moving. The gallery is moving. It is not the spot on the floor, as we know the Earth is not standing still, but the Earth is the one moving around the sun. What you actually end up seeing is this cosmic dimension of the speed that the Earth is traveling, orbiting the sun. So, it is really for LA and the whole light and space tradition there something that I was very interested in. The idea of measuring space is, in a different way, the idea of using time. The idea of the hole in the roof is something I’ve tried to work with before in different ways.

This is a small mirror ring hanging from the ceiling with a kind of small motor.  It takes roughly one minute for this ring to revolve one time. There is a spotlight and it projects on the ring, which has a mirror coating, and it has that reflection of this circle….this circle now is the light on the wall and the shadow from the ring. The reflection disappears in a little spot and as the ring turns on the circle reappears. It’s almost like a measurement of the space, like a scanner, a space scanner or like the white light on a copy machine, copying the thing. We have a perfect circle trying to scan a typical white cube gallery. It’s quite beautiful because it seems to be a like a balloon, almost like a ball. It’s called Your space embracer [2004], because it is embracing the space. The point is that the time it takes is just one minute, depending on the size of the space. I change the speed of the motor so it’s somewhat the same, otherwise in a very big space it would go very fast around. The idea that the space could be experienced as a reading of non-perspective, a different time element in how we encounter the space, is what I was interested in.

With the same ideas of the central perspective, here we have a white cube gallery again with a mirror hanging from the ceiling [Wall eclipse, 2004]. On the left side we see the shadow from the mirror. On the other side we see the reflection of the mirror and the mirror is cut proportional to the back wall. As the mirror turns around the walls, the reflection and the shadow, define our sense of perspective point, the vanishing point as well. In a certain way, you have two spaces inside of each other. The real space, the gallery space, is the one turning and the other, the one standing or the mirror and the reflection, is turning. As it turns around (there is only a mirror on one side so one has to be patient), it closes at some point and it’s like a wall eclipse. I have been interested in how centered perspective, and the history of theatre from the Renaissance, has such a strong impact and how our eyes organize the space. These white blocks on the wall (not exactly like slide projectors but very much the same) fade very slowly in and out. It takes five minutes for it to become very complex, to fizzle down, to become only a few white objects on the wall, and they tend then to lose their dimensionality. Within a very few lines suddenly there is this whole sense of depth as we know it. The smallest central piece of white light has the same proportional dimensions as the big wall all together, so even with one little white dot it seems not to be on the wall but very far away. These are different exercises. Anthropomorphically, as you move through the space, these two projections (which seems spatially challenging) suddenly change, they flip. One that is flat becomes distorted and the other one, which is distorted, becomes flat. Movement through the space actually has an impact on how we see things.

This is the Spiral pavilion [1999]. It is a Möbius strip, where half of the Möbius strip is under the ground. If we would draw the whole thing in, it would be a Möbius. Walking through, it is a very simple garden pavilion, a simple suggestion of a space in a ‘wandering around’ kind of environment where the lines are flipping, spiraling around you, as you walk through. I was interested in how movement, in different types of works, actually has a physical impact on your body, like the movement of just walking through. Just looking at it, it is quite easy to see it spiraling and it is quite nice, but actually going through you tend to walk more physically, it actually challenges you.

The tunnel was a sort of reconstruction of a tornado ]. In the same show I made a little tornado machine [Die Dinge, die du nicht siehst, die du nicht siehst, 2001. Then I put the tornado in a couple of galleries, and then in the real gallery I had the tornado made of cardboard.

Then, I tried to do the same thing in the museum itself, in Germany, with these stainless steel mirrors [Your spiral view, 2002]. Walking through the mirrors toward the glass, there was a pond outside (and that whole Monet-style junk in that museum). You were allowed to walk outside toward the light, toward the pond, the lilies, and all that stuff. The reflection part made it look much more active, in the sense that if you move just little bit the whole set of reflections immediately changed quite dramatically.

This is a smell tunnel [Dufttunnel, 2004]. There are round rings turning…somewhat in the dimensions of the pipe stacks (in the back upper left corner) that were built by Spear, in Germany, a Volkswagen factory. I thought, ‘Why don’t we take that theme of people walking through and smelling flowers?’ They have this theme park called a ‘Non-local Experience Center.’ Obviously, it is a kind of sales concept, one of these typical developments of experience, event-based parks. At the moment, in Germany, in Europe, it is the most successful park because it is like a gated neighborhood. There are never any problems. This is one discussion, but again I am trying to have people walk on the water, over the water, making a bridge, dematerializing, on the path looking down while being surrounded by these flowers. These are typical German suburban smelling type of flowers that one would have in the front garden. There are 2160 of them. We change them six times a year, to have ones that smells at a particular season. I like the mess of changing, people are confronted with these things. As this thing turns very slowly, just one revolving in two minutes (and they’re not all exactly the same speed, so there’s a certain perspective, the one further away moves a little bit faster), everything else seems to turn the other way and we tend to smell stronger. My argument is, and I didn’t come up with this, but the point is, as our eyes are destabilized, our other senses kick in and try to restore everything again…so having the whole thing moving a little bit, we can smell the flowers a little bit stronger.

I’ve done studies on how these spatial movements have impacted how we see space. This is the circumference of a sphere (looking at it from different sides) [Umschreibung, 2004]. You could walk around a sphere, but tradition in architecture has left out [certain times, spaces, dimensions, such as…the sphere is in there somewhere] the notion of walking through.

This is my Movement meter [The movement meter for Lernacken, 2000], in the south of Sweden, a sort of light house structure next to the bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Depending on where you are on the bridge the light has a different color, so your movement is the reason for the light to change color. You use this tower to measure your own movement. I even argue that the tower is looking back at you, and you can create a different pattern of movement, or a different grid, in which you move.

This is in Tuscany, at the top of five different hills [Five orientation lights, 1999]. I have also tried to do a layout of different color sectors. With this little path here, people could insure that they could move through the landscape without going on the road, so people could just walk through the fields, the gardens, and the mountains, using this path to orientate themselves by the color, introducing a secondary grid in the hilly, almost ocean-like, Tuscany landscape.

A rainbow, as we know it, has the same qualities when you stand in one spot and, organizes itself accordingly, if you move over to another spot. The rainbow changes position. This is a water sprinkling device, sprinkling down tiny droplets, with a spotlight. This is a piece from ’94 [Beauty]. With the spotlight, it is very easy to create a rainbow. It is quite simple, but the point is you have to move your body in order to find the rainbow, and the fact that the other person next to you will not see it is very challenging until this person sees their own rainbow, and the idea that when we walk out of this space we can even imagine that there is no rainbow. The idea of the participant, as I said earlier on, being constitutional for the piece, I think is very clear in this particular work.

I have done other kaleidoscopic windows, these kaleidoscopic ways of connecting outside and inside, this is Your now is my surroundings [2000]. When you move or look at this differently, every reflection inside of it changes also. I tried to make a kaleidoscopic space by having a ceiling taken out of the gallery and put in mirror walls up to the ceiling. I had to leave in the window structures, as you can see. The city from the outside (this was in New York) came in and I had that huge kaleidoscopic view of the skyline, of the outside. It was interesting walking outside, on the street, expecting to go to the gallery, working your way through all the office interns and the utilitarian stuff, and getting into the gallery and there is this box that from the inside suddenly you’re back out again. It is so funny how being back out, from the point of view from inside, is so mediated. The awareness of what it means to be outside, even when it rained (and it rained right in), seemed different standing inside/outside than when you were in the outside. People would get there and would say, “ooo, it’s raining…” Obviously, that is something they would never say on the street.

This is the same idea, to play around two negative kind of structures: black glass and clear glass. It is called The blind pavilion [2003]. You can see that one is inside of the other. One is the exact opposite of the other. As you would move around inside this pavilion, or if you stand in the center, you would get blind so to speak. The inside and outside would exactly be on top of each other, so as you move around windows would open and you would get different frames, framed views out. This is on top of the Danish Pavilion in the last Venice Biennale and the concept of going blind is somewhat relevant to the current state of Danish foreign affairs (the little western European micro-environment that the Venice Biennale is) of getting together with the other good ones…

This is an entrance to an exhibition. I threw this in because of this idea of not being certain whether you are doing the right thing, I really had to fight with this museum to get two entrances to my show so the sequence of moving would actually create problems, where people would have to make up their minds whether they chose the black or…of course, everyone chose the yellow one. The idea of doubt was resisted by the museum, this idea that the museum could not kind of guide people through. Of course, for a small Danish museum like this it was not a big problem, but it would be for a museum, like the Tate, if everyone walks a different direction into the museum (whether it’s fire safety, or the sequence of experiences, the display chronology, or the set up and the organizing of our experience), which I think is very interesting.

This piece was closed for a little while. It is an ice skating rink in Sao Paulo [The very large ice floor, 1998]. It was closed because people tend to be too loud for the art context. The ice machine was outside in the park so people who didn’t make it into the show had a little piece of art as well. In Sao Paulo, just in terms of movement on a platform and how we move on ice, the whole idea of what I talked about before about gravity, temperature and humidity…everything is changed on an ice surface like this. Everyone immediately knew it was ice. People would start running from 20 or 30 meters and jump onto it. The thing that struck me (and I don’t mean to patronize) was that everybody knew, but not everyone had this physical relationship. There was this mediated knowledge when people were on the ice. They were still encountering it for the first time. It was still a very challenging idea. People would even occasionally sit down in groups on the ice, not thinking then, of course, the ice would melt onto them until they would stand up again. This is what I mean, this kind of physical impact with the piece was quite different than the mediated knowledge people had about the piece.

This is Lava floor [2002](somewhat of the same idea), making it very hard to get into the museum. I worked with different flooring systems, ideas of how you move. This is slightly tilting two degrees diagonally throughout the space, breaking up the rock solid architecture, flipping and tilting that building, giving it other qualities. This is how museums work, right? They mediate our experiences. I’m very interested in how our surroundings try to organize our senses and how we actually end up negotiating our senses back.  What truths are we getting in order to know which sun is the right sun? How do we know what is true and what is a construction? How do we know when the truth is in fact our construction?

This is in Holland, a sunset from the autobahn, the private and the environment up close [Double sunset, Utrecht 1999].

This is green dye that I dumped in different rivers [Green river, 1998]. This is Los Angeles. This is Stockholm. Then Germany and Iceland and a few other places. It makes the city hyper real, takes away the static of doing something, and gives back time into the city. Turbulence in the water where there is green color has such a physical impact. I think that it makes the city really really soft.

I want to also briefly go through this show I had here at the Tate [The weather project, 2003]. This is my studio, where I did several experiments, how would the sun look in the mirror. It’s only one frequency of light, a low sodium lamp. The idea of the reflection was really something I worked with for a while. Not until I saw my own cacti collection up in the mirror, and I thought, ‘This was really quite nice to see how it was hanging down from the ceiling like that,’ did I decided to do this big mirror in the Turbine Hall at the Tate. The sun is quite all right, having half the sun in the mirror and so on, but the funny thing is having thirty meters up to the ceiling and thirty meters back down again from the mirror. It gives us a distance of sixty meters to our own reflection. It was such a lovely situation where you could survey your own body from the outside and quite interesting what that distance really made. I did this also in a much smaller space with a mirror ceiling, but the impact was not even close to being the same. Here is the whole idea once again: how do people move? How do people engage? And, how do people actually take in the museum? The development of, more or less, a community-like situation started to re-negotiate people’s behavioral patterns and they started to act completely different. It was interesting, especially since at the time there was a Donald Judd show. A lot of people started sitting down on the floor in the other parts of the museum, which of course was a big problem. With fire hazards and having to push fifteen hundred people through an hour, you can’t have people sitting around. I think Donald Judd would have appreciated this considering what his work is fundamentally about.

This is a monochromatic light. I put in just a little bit of haze to make it clear that it was really sixty meters. Haze has that really nice quality of giving empty space a dimension. Just like a pilot says, we have the ability to use haze as a measurement. This was in a sort of megalomatic museum context, so making space readable seemed quite attractive. It wasn’t too much about making something beautiful, it was just to give people a chance to domesticate this enormous space.

Look a this girl on the left. The funny thing was, it was so abstract. It is so abstract…see what she does now. She just made sure that it was in fact herself. See? Physically speaking, it is such an exciting thing/ Is this really my body? The yellow light and the haze of course increases it a little bit. The fact that he looks through a camera is also very interesting. He is even further away, so there were a lot of things of a physical nature going on. It was a very successful piece of how they, people on the left, look up as they walk. This is such a funny thing to look at yourself from the outside and yet move through a space. It is like you have video camera glasses on, which see the same thing they are supposed to see, but looking through video makes it so very different.

This is a small show in Los Angeles that is up and running at the moment [Meant to be lived in (Today I’m feeling prismatic), 2005]. I borrowed a domestic house, a typical Los Angeles style…hanging off a cliff. I walked into the show and blocked off all the windows. You can see the space and braces at the far end. I tried to make a little laboratory of the spectral light (as when printed), the whole rainbow, as you can see.

The idea was to go out of the museum context (like the thing we just saw at the Tate) and borrow a private house. I did it with a friend from Italy, Emi Fontana, who has a gallery in Italy. We said, ‘Why don’t we try to do a non-gallery project?’ In Los Angeles, of course, there is almost nothing going on….{laughing}…so it was exciting to see what happens when people walk into this more intimate context, like you almost take off your shoes when you come in. In every space, the sleeping room, the living room, the bed room, I have a small intervention…which is somewhat a reading, or something which is based on how we always move through the space, or go into the space.  There are eight spaces so there are eight special challenges. You walk in and it’s very clear. You think, ‘This is probably the bedroom. This is probably the living room.’ and so on. The space, and reading, is very distinct.

Currently, I am working on a project with a scientist, Boris Oicherman, who is here today [later titled: Your uncertainty of colour matching experiment, 2006]. He is down from Leeds, the University of Leeds, and the department of psycho-physics. We are trying to start off an experiment, which is actually the title of this talk, Similarity and Coloration. This experiment is about…that I can squeeze these two ends in and out of this, and as you can see there is a color chart on it. Let’s say that I put the top one on a certain bluish color. Then, I have to put the bottom one, from in my opinion, on the same color. What happens is that another person comes by and says, ‘No, these are not the same at all. Let me correct it for you.’ There will be small discrepancy between the position that I have, (we can call it 10) and this next person will put it on (twelve). From ten to twelve is the discrepancy in our color matching. Basically, there is an obviously scientific side to this, but I think in the terms of individuality, commodification and also the objectification of our senses through the cultivation of color organization, there is something I think in the discussion of what identity is. It seems today that generalizing people, making people the same, is a more fashionable concept than the notion of difference. The notion of difference, I think, being much more challenging and interesting. A concept of democracy, I guess. The idea that democracy should embrace the notion of difference, rather than the notion of sameness, seems so obvious and relevant to me. That is why I think I am interested in mapping out the differences. Like the weather phenomenon as a kind of community, where we accept that the other person doesn’t like the rain, or the other person doesn’t like the sun, and we can still be together. We can still share the same space.

Olafur Eliasson was born in Copenhagen in 1967 and trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art. Since the 1990s, he has gained an international reputation for his art, which deals with questions of science, technology, and systems of representation. In Britain, he is best known for ‘The Weather Show,’ his installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.