Cultural History, Not Natural History
An Interview with Olafur Eliasson
You spend several months
each year in Iceland photographing landscape formations: glaciers, caves,
islands, rivers. An encyclopedic image archive has gradually grown out
of this that has yielded several photo series, one of which is the work
Cartography, using aerial shots made by the Danish military. What
role does this kind of documentation play in your work?
the 50s and 60s, the military
photographed the whole of Iceland from the air for cartographic purposes.
Anyone can buy these pictures in the form of a map – mountain climbers
or hikers, for instance.
The aerial river series, 2000
Although I don't travel to Iceland every summer,
and I don't go there exclusively to photograph, I regularly visit my family
and friends. When I'm there, then of course I travel around the countryside
and take pictures. That's just a normal part of it. And so, over the course
of a summer, a series such as the glaciers
came about, or in another summer the waterfalls. In the process, I'm documenting
my vacation and the time I spend in Iceland. On the other hand, I'm also
documenting a certain region. Over the years, so many photographs have
amassed that they're gradually beginning to constitute a meta-series, a
detailed documentation of the country. It's going to take a little more
time, though, until something larger comes out of it.
avoid photographing people or architecture?
No. People are constantly
turning up in my photographs, as well as the traces they leave behind:
trails, paths, and buildings. The Lighthouse series also documents
this. In the end, nothing exists without people. The waterfalls aren't
just there. If we wouldn't go to see them, we wouldn't know whether or
not they were actually there. And they only exist as long as I talk about
them. When I talk about something else, then they no longer exist. Basically,
our perception of the world has more to do with people than with nature.
The lighthouse series, 1999
The term "techno-romantic" often turns up in connection with
your work. In the blurb to your recent monograph, you're introduced as
a modern Caspar David Friedrich. Why, in your opinion, are photographs
such as the landscapes from the Iceland
series so often read as romantic representations of nature?
Is it "romantic" if I seek the same construction in my photographs
as the romantics did in the 19th century? I don't want to be misunderstood,
because I find this movement very interesting. I consider the anthroposophic
scientists, however, to be much too totalitarian in their approach at representing
the world. To my mind, they developed a kind of pre-phenomenological idea
of the individual, which is created out of some elemental force, so to
speak, some fundamental substance. I regard this to be a construction.
There is no "true material." In principle, I believe that nothing is there
before our birth, before our "cultivation" or cultural education. I strongly
believe in cultural influence, that there's only one cultural history. I don't believe in a naturally occurring history of experience. Of course we can say, "Oh, this architecture is really fantastic!" – but it's only
fantastic because our cultural history has guided us accordingly.
Green River, 1998
that mean that our idea of romanticism is purely cultural?
important to be precise when you use the term "romantic." In the final
analysis, you have to make a distinction between whether you're talking
about the romantics in Germany, America, England, or Northern or Southern
Europe. Each nation evaluates and understands the concept of romanticism
differently. In England, romanticism had an entirely different bent with
than German romanticism did with Caspar
David Friedrich. At the same time in Germany, Kant
was working on his phenomenological approach. He postulated a hierarchy
of perception. Whoever perceives the most is closest to God and therefore
superior to the stupid farmer, who doesn't perceive anything because he's
just too dumb. This is a gross simplification, of course. What's essential
here, however, is that we're looking at an hierarchical model. For this
reason, German romanticism had something elitist about it. And the only
reason I have a problem with the idea of German romanticism is that it
evokes a certain arrogance and totalitarian mood in its historical context.
You never exhibit your photographs together with your installations,
drawing the distinction between "representation" and "reality." Is an installation
"more real" than a photograph?
No, it's not more real. In the
case of an installation, it's merely a matter of a further construction
in which the level of abstraction is neither higher nor lower, but simply
different. Incidentally, I've already exhibited photographs and installations
together. But in an exhibition, the viewer should understand and see the
separation between photography and installation. For this reason, I show
the two with a spacial division. For me, this would be like placing the
sketches for a sculpture next to the sculpture. Of course, you can do that.
You create a third possibility for viewing the work. I'll certainly be
doing that more often in the future.
Do the photographs have
the character of sketches?
Yes, you could say that. Actually,
the photographic works document natural phenomena more or less manipulatively.
Your installations experiment with scientific, social, and cultural
models of perception that become physically experienceable for the viewer,
unleashing a multitude of feelings. Is a spiritual experience implied here,
You can never exclude this kind of experience. In
one way or another, you're always dealing with this theme. The spiritual
aspect flows into my work to the extent that the general picture everyone
carries around with them is called into question in a fundamental way.
This already tends to fall within the scope of the so-called "spiritual."
But I'm against a general interpretation of this kind, above all because
this entire area is so closely tied in with New Age ideas and all this
No nights in summer, no days in winter, 1994
In principle, I have nothing against mysticism.
I find it interesting, for instance, that occultism had a strong presence
during the first half of the 20th century, yet is never mentioned in the
historical writings on modernism. Of course, what especially interests
me is the construction of reality historical writers offer us. Our consciousness
is the result of historical experience handed down to us through others.
A lot is left out in the process, especially the non-functional. This includes
the occult or the mystical. Yet these intercepted phenomena of history
were also constructions, and they were assembled in exactly the same way
as the worldly views they turned against. For this reason, I'd prefer to
say: "My works have nothing to do with the 'spiritual.'" On the other hand,
I'd like my installations to induce viewers to observe themselves while
observing, to make them aware of the methods that are implemented in the
process. They should regard themselves in the third person, so to speak.
Here, it's important to observe the systems or structures we use to observe
with, as well. This implies a certain form of order that makes self-reflection
possible in the first place.
In your texts, you've said that
"nature" is a construct of civilization. The conscious differentiation
between representation and reality goes hand in hand with the act of disillusionment.
In an interview, you stressed that it's important to "show the machine"
today, and you drew parallels to Peter Weir's film The
Truman Show. In this film, the hero discovers that the world he
took to be real is actually no more than a television studio in which the
stars in the sky are spotlights and the horizon above the sea a backdrop.
The film ends with Truman recognizing the boundaries of his world and finally
leaving the studio in order to live in "reality" from now on. Do you think
he'll go on to become a happy person?
Well, I've already said
that there is no hierarchy to reality. Truman will leave the studio and
experience the same story yet again. He'll come to the realization that
it's all a construction out there, too – that it's just another dome. As
long as he remains inside the studio, the outside is his blind spot, as
it were. The moment he steps outside, he perceives it. But he'll soon discover
that the social structure of the outside world is subjected to a system
of values that are neither natural nor created by God. It's a matter of
a cultural construction. This might have been developed over a long period
of time, and it might be a lot bigger than the studio, but it also contains
a huge blind spot – only it's not as nice and round as the one before.
And that's how it will always be. Redemption, in the sense that modernism
formulated it, does not exist. At the very most, we can find it within
Interviewers: Maria Morais, Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
Translation: Andrea Scrima
© Olafur Eliasson, Berlin
All illustrations have been taken from the monograph "Olafur Eliasson" with the friendly permission of Phaidon Publishers, London/New York 2002.