In a slightly chaotic gallery at the Venice Biennale, a white plastic drum juts out from the wall. On it is a red button saying ‘Press’. You hesitate and glance around. Are you really supposed to touch it? Eventually, you press. Nothing happens. Then, as you reach up to try again, a brilliant flash of light bursts from inside the drum. Like the flash in a photo-booth it is gone in an instant, but it is blinding. As you blink in surprise you realise that it carried the form of a word, now printed on your retina: ‘Utopia’.
This is a work by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic installation artist who this autumn follows Anish Kapoor, Juan Muñoz and Louise Bourgeois in taking over the enormous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. That plastic drum in Venice, entitled Your Utopia, may be on a very different scale but it combines several recurring characteristics of Eliasson’s art, at least some of which will figure in the Tate work. He likes tricks, often ones that rely on technology or science. He is intrigued by the ephemeral and the transient. And he is very keen to get inside your head – something Your Utopia achieves with almost irritating literalness: for some time after the flash you still see that word every tim you blink.
There are a couple of similar pieces at the Biennale’s Danish Pavilion, which is given over entirely to Eliasson. One is a funnel; you look in the narrow end and it opens out to reveal a jet of water coming towards you and breaking, like the bubbling top of a fountain. It is lit by strobe light so all you see are bright glimpses in the darkness. Each is different from the last and, because of the strobe effect, each appears to be perfectly still as if the water were frozen. In another work, a camera obscura projects an image of leaves and branches from outside the pavilion onto a small white table. In the strong Venetian light the image is so clear, so perfect it might have been printed. But look closely, and every now and then the leaves move.
Something you can see with your eyes closed; something moving that is still and something still that moves – this witty, inventive eagerness to provoke spectators into ‘seeing themselves seeing’, as he puts it, has made Eliasson extremely popular among the gallery-goers of Europe and America and earned him a standing in the art world that is remarkable for someone still in his thirties. But though he has staged shows in Britain, notably in Dundee and Leeds, his name is still relatively little known here, so Tate Modern’s Unilever commission represents a double milestone: his first opportunity to exploit a space so vast and his first large-scale encounter with the British public.
I have come to Venice not only to see the latest work (a task rendered considerably more complicated when the computers are stolen from the Biennale ticket booths, causing long, irritable queues) but also to meet the man. The rendezvous is Florian’s café, the historic tourist trap on St Mark’s Square, and since we’ve never met we have to locate each other by one of those antisocial short-range mobile phone calls. A smallish, youthful figure waves to me across the terrace, a little rumpled, speaking good English with a distinct but pleasant Germanic ring. At closer range, when we shake hands, he proves to have large, deep-brown eyes rendered all the larger – an appropriate quirk of perception – by the thick lenses of his spectacles.
The biography is straightforward. Eliasson was born in Denmark in 1967, the son of two Icelanders living in Copenhagen. In time his parents split up and his father, an artist, moved back home, so while Olafur was educated in Denmark he spent his holidays in Iceland. After art school he moved to Germany, first in 1993 to Cologne and a year later to Berlin, where he still lives, so he has been a professional artist for just ten years.
‘I don’t think I had a very steep career curve,’ he says. ‘It has been steady, continuous. You have some artists who, one year you haven’t heard of them and the next year they are all over the place; that wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t just do one project which made everybody say wow. I went from one to the next, and this is somehow still how it is.’ This doesn’t quite tell the story, for while it may be true that his career is not built on sensation Eliasson’s impact on the art world has been remarkable. For at least seven years he has been in constant demand, from Dubrovnik to Malmø and from Tokyo to São Paulo. In 1998 he staged an astonishing 62 shows and his schedule today is so intense he needs a studio staff of eight to keep up.
In earlier years he was probably less known for his installations than for his photographic work. These are a series of muscular, almost violent images of the Icelandic landscape taken from unusual or arresting angles. ‘I just love making pictures. It interests me a lot,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry to sound blunt but that’s how it is.’ He still has a couple of photographic projects under way but he admits that early in his career the pictures had a financial role, helping support the other work. Installations devoted to the ephemeral, after all, can be hard to commodify – where the piece was an empty space in which the temperature had been altered, for example, ‘the pictures just look stupid’.
As an artist concerned with how we see, he is naturally conscious not only of the difference between seeing things on a slide and in the flesh, but also between indoors and outdoors, exposed and behind glass. A lot of his work involves experimenting with these differences, very often employing his own versions of natural phenomena: rainbows, ice, heat or running water. In Pittsburgh in 1999 he produced a large and popular piece with the (uncharacteristically complex) title Your natural denudation inverted, in which he created a pond in a museum courtyard. ‘I tried to integrate the museum into the piece, not only as an architectural framework but also as an institutional awareness – something that people bring with them when they go into it. I wanted to make a pond and I wanted the pond to touch the windows of the museum so people on the other side of the window could almost step into it.’ In the pond an artificial geyser pumped out steam and this too was linked to the museum structure, tapping into the building’s heating system and echoing the steam plumes rising from vents at the top of the building.
If the piece was partly a study in the responsibilities of museums, it was also a beautiful and unexpected exploration of nature through three seasons. Visitors could watch the geyser billow, and trail their fingers in the still water. In autumn leaves gathered on the pool and when winter came the water froze and icicles hung from the trees. To Eliasson’s satisfaction – if not to the museum’s – people walked on the ice. He also encouraged visitors to walk on The very large ice floor, in So Paulo. ‘Then the institution became worried they were too noisy and closed it.’ He smiles: ‘So this is my interest in natural phenomena. it’s almost profane.’
Whenever he can, Eliasson watches spectators and studies their responses in a search for new ways of surprising them, of heightening their perceptions. When he talks about his Green River project, for example, it is mostly in terms of how the witnesses react. Green River involves dyeing a river green, and so far he has done it four times. In Tokyo, he says, ‘a lot of people stopped and looked… And of course they were stunned. I did it in a spot where the cherry blossom comes out a month later. It’s well known as a beautiful place. Actually the police came and. basically I ran away. And the police then put up posters asking anybody who had seen somebody suspicious to contact them. [He laughs.] I have a photograph of the poster.’
It is, as he puts it, ‘a kind of action’. He doesn’t seek permission (though he makes sure the dye is safe) and he doesn’t give notice; he also picks fairly small sites and it’s all over in two or three hours. ‘If you do it on a big stage the mediation of the project immediately becomes quite sensational. I’ve tried to avoid that spectacular approach.’ The purpose of the project is the response. ‘Los Angeles, Stockholm, Tokyo are places where the relationship between the water and the city is completely different, and the way people experience and refer to the water in their local setting is very different. It has been interesting for me to investigate that relationship.’
At the Danish Pavilion in Venice he installed something he has shown before, an empty room bathed in yellow light. I passed through without noticing any particular effect, but when I asked him about it the explanation made me want to go back. The light is from sodium bulbs of a type used to illuminate Belgian motorways and Swiss mountain tunnels – chosen because, as Eliasson puts it, ‘you see more’. ‘The graduation of the tones is easier for your eyes to detect. The brain has to understand less information than with a whole-colour picture, so we have the sense that we see much more. The yellow room is for me like hyper-seeing, a space where the vision is advanced.’
‘But you don’t put anything in the room to look at.’
‘No, that’s not true. You are in there. You can look at your hands, for example. Also, if somebody else walks in you not only look at them, but you also realise very quickly that they are looking at you. In a normal space we don’t think about who is looking at what and why are we looking, so it raises these questions.’
There is about Eliasson a modesty and tact not always associated with successful artists. He is coy about his own success, and while he is eager to discuss his opinions he refuses to impose them. There is little sign of the ambition and confidence you might expect from someone who is about to unveil what will be, for a time, one of the world’s biggest indoor art works. But the confidence is there, along with the record of achievement. Curators I questioned saw it as a natural step for this businesslike but powerful artist to take on the Turbine Hall, even at 36 (he is a dozen years younger than Kapoor and Muñoz). Not only does he have a gift for communicating in simple and often pleasing terms, they say, but he also has the necessary instinct for the spectacular.
For himself, he insists that his art is accessible and that he is – as befits a man who plays golf – mainstream rather than revolutionary. The stream in question, he explains, is a generation of artists concerned first and foremost with the individual. ‘It’s not like the 1930s or maybe the 1970s, when there was a communal feeling that by standing together artists could change the world. Today the communal feeling lies in the concept of singularity; through evaluating and changing our individual position we can have an impact on our surroundings. This may be a bit obscure but I feel that even a minimal project such as the yellow room is about social relations, but not because I have a clear idea and I, on behalf of you, want to show some things. I want you to look at yourself in regard to those things.’
Natural phenomena offer one means of making this connection; science and technology another: ‘I find there is a lot of formal material in science that is very good to get people into a negotiation, a discussion, a situation.’ Hence the flash, the strobe, the camera obscura, the yellow light; in fact he often refers to his installations as machines or experiments and to his studio as a laboratory. In a piece that made me laugh out loud, he took a series of spouts and boxes and built a waterfall in reverse. ‘It made me laugh as well,’ he says. ‘It’s everyday-like and completely accessible, like having a coffee in the morning, but then you say, look: the water is running up – ha-ha-ha! When you look closer you see there is a very complex pump and a system of scaffolding, boxes and water circulation. The piece then has a second layer, for me at least. It seems simple, reversing a waterfall, but it doesn’t even look very good when you examine it. You look at the effort which goes into doing such a simple thing, and it’s not even really working. I’m content with that, the idea of a lot of effort going into almost nothing.’
By now we have drunk our second Florian’s coffee and consumed some of the world’s smallest and most expensive sandwiches. So I ask about the Turbine Hall. Besides Venice, this is Eliasson’s big project for the year, and – in sharp contrast to the earlier years of 50 shows and more – virtually his only one. He has put a great deal of effort into investigating the building – ‘the structure, the roof, can I change the roof, can I change the walls, can I change the bridge, the ramp, the floor, can I put a new floor, new roof, new walls?’ He also conducted interviews in every department, from education and marketing to visitor services and the media office – looking, he says, for answers to three questions: What do people know about the Tate? What does the Tate want people to know? And what is the Tate actually saying? ‘Since most people are not going to know anything about my work – compared with how much they know about the Tate – I have to take that into account. If I take advantage of it, it can be something extremely positive.’
So what will we see? ‘I’m trying to work with the Turbine Hall as an outdoor space, with the museum as the interior and its balconies looking out. I want to engage with the idea of how people go in, where do they go in, do they walk down the ramp, where do they go, do they go under the bridge, do they immediately go on the bridge? As usual I will work very ephemerally, and I will try to work out how I can work ephemerally in a site where there is so much information and so much stuff going on – thousands of people going through every hour. How do I bring a form to tangible questions in a space like this?’ Above all, he says he wants the exhibit to be what he calls ‘flat’. ‘I mean flat in the metaphorical sense of it being something that everybody can relate to. I want the Turbine Hall to be an extension of London. I want it to be something, I cannot say non-spectacular, but I want it to be completely accessible.’
Ice, perhaps? Fog? Mirrors? We shall see. One thing, alas, we have to rule out: Eliasson considered a rain storm inside the Turbine Hall – truly an extension of London – but, frustratingly, it seems the structure could not cope with all that running water.