A Strange New World: The Art of Ólafur Eliasson


Fig. 1, Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003. Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern (London).

(Image Source: David Firn, Flickr Commons)

Most artists and designers are familiar with color—they work with it just about every day, but very few actually understand the science behind it. Interestingly enough, this is not a requirement for being a good artist or designer. In the same way that somebody can be an excellent driver, yet possess little understanding of how everything works under the hood, artists can use color effectively without understanding anything about what is “under the hood” of the colors they use. For artists, what’s important is knowing how to use color – to control palettes, harmonies, and perceptual interactions, as well as mixing colors. Understanding how to manipulate and control the basic elements of color (hue, value, and chroma), as well as a healthy dose of intuition, to bend and break the rules, is all one really needs. There are some artists though whose curiosity takes them across disciplinary boundaries and whose keen understanding of the science of color forms the basis of their work and their experiments.

One such person is the Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Eliasson. Eliasson is highly regarded as one of the most prominent and influential artists working today with major shows, in major museums, all over the world including the Tate Modern (London), the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Venice Biennale. His work is often large and employs a variety of media, and he maintains studios in both Berlin and Reykjavik, with a staff of over a hundred assistants, that include fabricators, archivists, architects, designers, and researchers!

Like the artist James Turrell, who we examined earlier the viewer's experience is a key feature of his art. Eliasson often deals with the intersection of art and science, and he views his pieces much like experiments – ways to interrogate the natural world to understand it through experience and interaction. One of his central concerns is our perception of light and the ethereal atmosphere it creates. In his most well-known work, The Weather Project (Fig. 1), he installed a half-circle of yellow lights next to a giant mirrored ceiling and pumped-in mist. The illusion was of a giant sunset inside the building with people interacting by lying down on the floor and contemplating the sun and their reflections on the ceiling.

In many of Eliasson’s works, such as Room for One Color (Fig.2), he uses mono-frequency, low pressure sodium lamps that emit a very narrow frequency band of yellow light (589 nanometres). The effect is to transform the environment so that all colors, except for variations of yellow and black, disappear. Eventually, due to the effect of chromatic adaption to ambient light, the yellowness of the light also appears to fade over prolonged exposure, leaving the viewer to experience a form of mono-chromacy, as if they were living in a black and white world! It was, as the curator and historian Katy Barrett described, "an oddly distressing experience to lose your sense of colour nuance in this way."

Fig. 2 Visitors to Olafur Eliasson’s, Room for one colour, 2008 (Image Source: Susan Sermoneta Flickr Commons)

Eliason is interested in harnessing the science of what we know about color and perception, to generate experiences within the domain of art, that provoke thought and contemplation.

In his own words:

“It makes us aware of the limits of our senses and helps us to see the relativity of our colour perception. Understanding how we see colour can make us reconsider how we constitute the world. By reducing experience to the minimum, the monochrome allows us to reflect on what is happening when we perceive something, on how perception is also a type of world-making. For a moment, we can imagine what it might be like to become colour-blind or another species of animal or even more radically other. What strange, new worlds might emerge then?” [1]

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[1] Eliasson, O. (2017) Your monochromatic listening, Monochrome: Painting in Black and White, National Gallery Company Limited, London. p. 211

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