Participation in the Body of Work by Olafur Eliasson

Throughout the 20th century, one of the most notable tendencies in art has been the ever-increased abstractisation of the forms of artistic expression – something that can be illustrated in regards to the comparatively recent emergence of a variety of different artistic styles, such as Avant-gardism and Suprematism. After all, it is specifically due to this that, as of the end of the 20th century, it became a commonplace assumption among many people that, to be able to enjoy art, one must be thoroughly capable of discussing it, concerning what appears to be the applicable theory of art. As Wolfie noted: “In the beginning, we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got flat (Abstract Expressionism)… (art) disappeared up its fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!”. As of today, however, more and more artists come to realize the fact that it is not only that true art is quite dimensional (physical), but also that it can serve several essentially utilitarian purposes. Olafur Eliasson is undeniably one of these artists because most of his art installations are concerned with exposing the ‘materialness’ of such fundamentally metaphysical notions as space and time. What it means is that, while visually engaging with his artistic installations, viewers are being naturally prompted to reconsider the validity of their assumptions about the nature of space, which in turn causes them to experience the sensation of cognitive dissonance. In its turn, this implies that the essence of one’s aesthetic experiences, evoked by Eliasson’s artworks, cannot be discussed outside of how he or she would go about mentally engaging with his artistic installations. In plain words – participation and interaction are an integral part of how these installations are being exhibited publicly. In this paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, in regards to the artist’s installations The Weather Project (2003) and The New York City Waterfalls (2008), while promoting the idea that Eliasson’s art does contain many clues, as to what will be the philosophy of art in the future.

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The installation The Weather Project was exhibited in London (Tate Modern –Turbine Hall) in 2003. Its main features were the artificial ‘sun’ (made out of hundreds of monochromatic lights), the giant mirror up on the ceiling, and the artificially created fog/mist in the air.

The Weather Project

The aesthetic effect, triggered by this installation, had to do with the fact that, while in the Hall observing Eliasson’s ‘ sun’ through the mist, visitors could not help experiencing the Freudian sensation of ‘uncanny’. The reason for this is that, because of having found themselves in the center of The Weather Project, many people would end up realizing that many of their former assumptions about what is the elemental quintessence of the space-time continuum are not quite valid. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that when exposed to it, visitors begin to perceive themselves as being lost in space, with the latter appearing to be both: multidimensional and yet thoroughly real. As Eliasson noted: “The whole idea (behind The Weather Project)… was to make this space tangible… and to solve the discrepancy between what your body can embrace and what space in that sense is”. What the artist managed to accomplish, in this respect, is prompting viewers to consider the possibility that there is a certain substance to space (it is not merely emptiness), and that it happened to be reflective of the unconscious workings of their psyche. In its turn, this was done by the mean of establishing the perspectival preconditions for visitors to feel being objectified within the surrounding reality. This explains why many of those who have attended The Weather Project, would usually report that they used to experience some difficulty while trying to locate themselves in the ceiling mirror as if they have had attained ‘oneness’ with the installation.

It is understood, of course, that the above-mentioned presupposes that the aesthetics of Eliasson’s installation cannot be discussed in terms of a ‘thing in itself’ – another notable aspect of this particular artwork, on his part, is that it is highly interactive. This simply could not be otherwise, because the installation’s mise-en-scene makes it possible for onlookers to come to terms with their anxieties, in regards to the dilemma of whether ‘seeing’ is actually ‘believing’. Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that Eliasson’s installations are being often described as such that allows viewers to have an encounter with the materialized representation of space, light, and time, as such that organically derive out of each other. According to Hillier: “The idea of encounter is of importance especially for Eliasson. He aims to stimulate encounters as events, comings together and collective experiences with transformative potential installations”. At this point, it needs to be noted that Eliasson’s artistic installations are rather collaborative, in the sense of how they came into being. The functioning of the so-called Studio Olafur Eliasson in Germany, which employs about forty professionals in the different fields of science/art, and which provides the artist with the scientifically-backed recommendations, as to how he should proceed with the spatial formulation of his aesthetic idea, exemplifies the validity of this suggestion. What it means is that, along with representing a high value, as the work of art, The Weather Project also appears to be capable of enlightening people on the fundamental workings of the universe. After all, the reason why the installation in question is being often referred to as such that produces an utterly powerful effect on the audiences while allowing them to actively participate in the ‘aesthetic action’, is that it happened to be thoroughly observant of the 20th century revolutionary breakthroughs in the fields of cybernetics, biology, physics, and psychology.

To exemplify the validity of this statement, we can point out the fact that, while working on The Weather Project, Eliasson never ceased being aware of one of the main provisions of systems theory, which came to prominence during the 20th century last few decades. According to it, the overall quality of an open-ended thermodynamic system is something so much more than merely the sum of the qualities of this system’s integral elements. The reason for this is that, due to being systemic, these elements continue to interact with each other, which in turn calls for the creation of a new discursive framework for assessing such a system, as a whole. As Ferdig pointed out: “Phenomena cannot be reduced to ‘understandable and manageable parts’ separate from the interactive networks of which they are a part… We now know that matter and life… are in constant motion, yielding patterns of behavior that are nonlinear and seemingly random; while at the same time revealing paradoxical states of stability and instability, order and disorder, calm, and turbulence”. The visual aspects of the installation The Weather Project correlate with the ‘systemic’ outlook on the surrounding reality perfectly well. After all, this installation is indeed concerned with combining things that can hardly be considered naturally compatible, such as the constantly changing shapes of misty fog, on one hand, and the spatially fixed geometrical dimensions of the Turbine Hall, on the other. This creative move, on the part of Eliasson, appears to be reflective of the artist’s intention to prompt visitors to contemplate the possibility for orderliness to emerge out of primeval chaos, without the involvement of any “third parties”, such as God. There is, however, even more to it – the installation’s components presuppose that to be able to derive aesthetic pleasure from observing The Weather Project, visitors must take an active part in deciphering the messages that it conveys, and in attaining awareness of what can be considered its overall discursive significance. This, of course, implies that there is a certain cinematic quality to Eliasson’s installation and that the art piece in question is affected by the Modernist tradition in art. As O’Connor noted: “Perceptions become cinematic when the field of visibility is opened to its virtual milieu beyond the dimensions of the frame. This supplement to the field of visibility is not so much seen as it is sensed and anticipated, in the same way that we sense a depth to the world”. Moreover, it also explains the actual mechanics of how people inside of this installation begin to realize that The Weather Project is so much more than merely the combination of its components, such the artificial ‘sun’, mirrors, straight walls, and fog: “The conflict of two shots (thesis and antithesis) produces a wholly new idea (synthesis). Thus, the conflict between shot A and shot B is not AB, but a qualitatively new factor—C”. After having entered the Turbine Hall with Eliasson’s installation in it and observed their reflections in the overhead mirror, visitors begin to experience the earlier mentioned sensation of cognitive dissonance, triggered by the fact that, while being fully aware of the installation’s spatial limitations, they cannot help sensing that there is none. In its turn, this naturally encourages them to suspect that the relationship between space, time, and the matter has very little to do with the conventions of Euclidian geometry and that this relationship is best discussed in terms of an ‘entity of its own’ – something that would be fully consistent with the provisions of the Theory of Relativity.

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This provides us with the insight into why, ever since the installation become publicly accessible, it never ceased drawing the attention of a great many people one’s exposure to The Weather Project causes him or her to doubt the presumed objectivity of its existence, as someone completely subjectified within the surrounding space-time continuum. Metaphorically speaking, once inside of this particular installation, people experience the sensation of being ‘one’ with the universe/nature. The manner, in which people react to Eliasson’s artistic creation, confirms the validity of this suggestion: “Look at her face (referring to a visitor)… looking at herself in the mirror… she wasn’t very sure whether she was seeing herself or not”.

It is understood, of course, that the above-stated indeed leaves only a few doubts that The Weather Project is best described as being thoroughly ‘participatory’, in the sense of providing viewers with the chance to interact with the installation on both: perceptual and cognitive levels. However, there are also many figurative connotations to this description, which justify its soundness even further. The main of them has to do with the installation’s clearly defined ‘holistic’ spirit, extrapolated by the fact that, as it was noted earlier, The Weather Project does allow visitors to experience the feeling of having their personalities infused with the cosmos. As a result, people end up endowed with the sense of social responsibleness – the effect that is being triggered by the installation’s ability to lessen the acuteness of ego-driven anxieties in those who come to observe it. This correlates perfectly well with Eliasson’s view on art, as the instrument of society’s betterment: “Art is not just about decorating the world and making it look even better…. It is about taking responsibility”.

In light of what has been said about The Weather Project up to this point, we can identify the installation’s foremost qualitative characteristic. It has to do with the fact that The Weather Project is being indicative of the artist’s intention to succeed in doing something that has never been attempted before – taking a simultaneous advantage of two conceptually incompatible approaches to creating the work of art: Expressionist and Realist. After all, due to the ‘synthetic’ quality of the installation’s aesthetic appeal, there can be only a few doubts that, during the creative process, Eliasson did utilize the Expressionist technique of dichotomizing the discursively unrelated materials/substances, as such that enabled him to ensure the installation’s dramatic intensity. Nevertheless, unlike what is being the case with Expressionists, he made a deliberate point in establishing the objective preconditions for the installation’s message to be channeled into people’s minds through their sensory apparatus. This, of course, highlights the unmistakably ‘democratic’ subtleties of the artwork at stake – as practice indicated, the specifics of one’s social status and the level of the concerned person’s educational attainment did not have much effect on his or her ability to enjoy The Weather Project. Predictably enough, this exposes the installation, as such, that is best discussed in terms of Realist art.

Essentially the same line of argumentation can be applied, when it comes to discussing the significance of Eliasson’s installation The New York City Waterfalls, which for three and a half months used to present New York residents with a view on the man-made cascade of falling water under the Brooklyn Bridge.

The New York City Waterfalls

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The rationale behind this suggestion is as follows: The concerned installation appears fully consistent with the Modernist idea that, for a particular work of art to be aesthetically valuable, it must be ‘purified’ of as many associations with the de facto reality, as possible. As the co-founder of artistic Modernism, Paul Valery noted: “The ‘pure’ (art) modes do not burden themselves with imitating the surrounding reality… On the contrary, these modes exploit, organize, and compose the values of our sensibility’s every strength, detached from all references and all functions as signs”. A glance at The New York City Waterfalls will confirm that this indeed is the case. After all, the very idea of having a realistically looking waterfall in the center of a large city does not quite correlate with the 21st-century realities of urban living in America. This, of course, implies that how this particular installation provides people with the externally induced aesthetic stimuli, is fundamentally Expressionist – the perceptual ‘unnaturalness’ of The New York City Waterfalls was exactly what used to draw this city’s residents to take a look at it. At the same time, however, unlike what is being usually the case with the Modernist/Expressionist works of art, The New York City Waterfalls project has proven itself thoroughly practical, as the tool of helping people to come up with comparatively accurate estimates of far-perspectival distances in New York. As the artist pointed out: “As you stand still, the landscape doesn’t necessarily tell you how big it is… if you have a waterfall in there right out at the horizon, you go – the water is falling really slow. Oh my God – it’s really far!”. In other words, it is not only that The New York City Waterfalls installation was there to make it possible for New Yorkers to experience the thrill of being able to observe the cascade of falling water in the foreground of the city’s skyscrapers, but also to help them to address the challenges of a contemporary living.

Therefore, it will be fully appropriate, on our part, to refer to both art installations, as such that do contribute rather substantially to the ongoing debate, as to what should be deemed the role of the elements of interactivity and participation, within the context of how people go about assessing the discursive aspects of a particular artistic creation. The reason for this is that, as it was illustrated by these two of Eliasson’s art projects, the intensity of one’s artistic experience positively relates to the affiliated art piece’s ability to resonate with what happened to be the current predominant socio-cultural discourse. After all, the sheer popularity of this particular artist can be partially explained by his reputation, as an intellectually flexible individual, who is being comfortable with the post-Modernist idea that the exponentially paced technological progress calls for the establishment of circumstantially adequate methods of artistic expression. Thus, The Weather Project and The New York City Waterfalls can be referred to as such that contain many valuable insights, into what may be the ways of art in the future. The most notable of them can be formulated as follows – as time goes on, art and science will be increasingly discussed as mutually complementary notions. This eventual development is being predetermined by the fact that, as the art of Olafur Eliasson implies, our current awareness of the phenomenological nature of the perceptual processes inside of one’s brain, does provide artists with the previously unheard of opportunities for making their physically embodied artistic statements both: utterly memorable and socially relevant. Even though it is still too early to speculate about what would be the technical means of artistic expression in the future, we can hypothesize that they will be concerned with the artists’ strive to incorporate the theoretical conventions of quantum mechanics into the very philosophy of their would-be artistic creations. The earlier discussed installations of Eliasson do imply the possibility of such an eventual scenario – those who have been exposed to them, do begin to wonder whether the objectiveness of the surrounding physical environment should be taken for granted. This is exactly the reason why it became a commonplace practice among many critics to suggest that, instead of merely reflecting the physically extrapolated qualities of space and time, Eliasson’s art creates the spatial realm of its own, the continual existence of which is being ensured by people’s willingness to establish a close and personal interrelationship with his installations. In this respect, it would prove rather impossible to disagree with Molesworth, who suggested that: “Some of the aura of the Renaissance magus… hangs about Eliasson’s drive to see into all the dark corners, or even around them if he can. This impetus is fuelled with connotations suggesting that the objects represent… the outside world where the human gaze is unleashed and delimited”. It is understood, of course, that this would not be the case, had the artist’s fans been spared of the opportunity to sense that, while contemplating the dimensional implications of his artworks, they participate in the act of these works’ creation.

What is also quite notable about The Weather Project and The New York City Waterfalls, is that both of these projects appear to reflect the tendency of more and more people to associate the notion of ‘art’ with the notion of ‘collaboration’, rather than with what the idea of one’s ‘creative genius’ stands for. After all, as the artist himself has repeatedly admitted, he would not be able to commission these installations if it was not up to his close cooperation with the Studio Olafur Eliasson – the actual originator of what is now being known as Eliasson’s distinctive ‘trademarks’, as an artist. This trend is best defined as being dialectically predetermined – the exponential advancement of science eliminates a need for the introvertedly minded (and therefore socially secluded) individuals (geniuses) to be in charge of giving a boost to the continual development of the methodology of artistic expression. What it means is that, as time goes on, the representations of modern art are likely to become increasingly less abstract and more emotionally intense – something that correlates well with the sophisticate urbanites’ desire to submerge themselves in the spatial ‘realness’ of whatever happened to be their environmental niche.

In light of the earlier articulated arguments, regarding the discussed subject matter, the paper’s initial thesis appears thoroughly plausible. There is indeed a good reason to think of The Weather Project and The New York City Waterfalls, as such, that provide us with a clue, as to what would be the way of ‘things to come in the realm of art in the future. There can be hardly any consensus among people, as to whether the current tendency of art to become increasingly impersonal should be considered beneficial. This, however, does not undermine the process’s objectiveness – something that can be considered yet another indication of the legitimacy of the initially proposed thesis.


Caballero, Carlo, Faurae and French Musical Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Ferdig, Mary, ‘Sustainability Leadership: Co-creating a Sustainable Future’, Journal of Change Management, 7.1 (2007), 25–35

Giannetti, Louis, Understanding Movies (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001)

Hillier, Jean, ‘Liquid Spaces of Engagement: Entering the Waves with Antony Gormley and Olafur Eliasson’, Deleuze Studies, 6.1 (2012), 132-148

Molesworth, Charles, ‘Olafur Eliasson and the Charge of Time’, Salmagundi, 160 (2009), 42-52

O’Connor, Daniel, Mediated Associations: Cinematic Dimensions of Social Theory (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2004)

TED, Olafur Eliasson: Playing with Space and Light, 2009. Web.

Wolfe, Tom, The Painted Word (Bantam Books: New York, 1976)

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