Conversation between Olafur Eliasson and Markus Miessen Berlin, 20 August 2008
Markus Miessen At the moment how do you divide your time?
Olafur Eliasson I’m in Berlin two weeks a month to work in my studio. I have developed a studio infrastructure that allows me to focus on creativity – running an office with 40 people is time consuming. Six years ago, I decided that I would rather make less money and hand over the running of the studio. It obviously changed a few things and it was an improvement.
MM You think it has an effect in your work?
OE The good thing is that I’m not involved with anything to do with money or staff so I only spend time in my studio on what interests me. Of course, it’s not just making work because there is a laboratory process that is a kind of ping-pong – content in form and form in content – going on all the time. All the interaction between the studio members and me is about the challenges of drawing something that you only have a feeling about. I have an emotional idea of a certain problem but I cannot verbalise it. In that sense, the kind of liberating aspect of studio work is that you can embrace uncertainty in a very productive way.
MM So it’s great that you can have this pool of people.
OE Everybody working here is a specialist. There are people who are good at things that I’m not very good at, for instance, digital visualisation. Yet it’s not about the combination of all the actual skills but about a dialogue between different people. If you go into a micro level of the development of an idea, it’s so liberating to talk to someone who knows something you don’t know – as simple as that. Any computer can do things that the brain can barely comprehend – this is not the point. A 3D designer, in response to a dialogue, can draw things that crystallise the essence of what you just discussed. The drawing then becomes both productive and also a critical filter of what you just went through. This filtering is extremely helpful in the spatial experiments, in the way in which geometry and mathematical problems impact on perspective and representation of space.
MM I thought about issues that we might share, and maybe this is a little farfetched to say, but I think we both suffer voluntarily from the idea of the polymath: we have ventured in so many directions yet we can’t really be an expert on everything.
MM And then of course, at that kind of point, these pools of people become very important. It was one of the reasons why we decided to come to Berlin. In London, if you want to employ people, it’s insane.
MM Yes, and when did you decide to move to Berlin?
OE I moved from Copenhagen to Cologne in 1993 because I thought the art world was livelier in Cologne. I visited Berlin occasionally and I realised that it would be more inspiring. After one and a half years in Cologne, where I actually had a great time and people were very inspiring, I moved here. I had my first show here in 1995 but I started working more consistently in 1996-7, and the relationship with the city became much more productive later in the nineties. It was a struggle to be in Berlin in the mid-nineties. It was not at all an easy city to be in, it was very demanding somehow. But then there is such a high influx of talented people here and this is exceptional.
MM I lived here for only two years, from 2000 to 2002, and I think the changes since have been amazing. I mean, not in terms of the city but in terms of the people – there are more English people but also the city has become somehow more professional. Would you agree with this?
OE Yes, I wouldn’t say professional but slightly more disciplined – the work ethic was always very low, simply because of the economy. The lack of production slowed things down a bit. A lot of time was spent in subcultural pockets but there was nothing that wasn’t good for something else – being lazy created a very good nightclubbing scene. Now there seems to be an interest for various kinds of money. It’s not just commerce but an infrastructure with a more pragmatic relationship with money – educational, communicational, you know, organising content – and this is one of the reasons why it makes so much sense that you are here. Suddenly, the work discipline gets better. But if people in Berlin would work as much as people in New York, this city would be so brutal … For every twelve hours people work in New York, people in Berlin only work six hours. And this means there is an unexploited potential here, not just that critical mass of creative people.
MM For us that was always the fear, that if we left London the lack of economic pressure would bring this change. At the same time, the economic pressure of London forces you to work in things that you don’t necessarily want to do.
OE Exactly. But the good thing is that there are various parts of the art market that seem to be on the decline, for instance Miami Art Basel, which I think is pure fetishist arrogance. Places like that are non-content-based markets – the opposite of Berlin. But this doesn’t mean that the money is disappearing, I think it’s simply that people are betting on content rather than on form, and, of course, the biggest mass of skills in the world right now is either in Berlin or probably in China.
MM I just experienced the same. We are doing this installation with an artist that is technologically demanding so we are working with computer programmers. The hardware needed is also quite crucial. Here, we’re only working with two guys, instead of the ten that we would have needed in London, and they have their own ideas not only on the programming but also on developing the hardware for it, and it’s still 50 per cent cheaper than in London.
OE Berlin carries a certain criticism, not in opposition to London or New York, but one that is more threatening because it goes with what the world knows about art. Berlin works closely with London and New York but it’s unpredictable – a kind of introspective criticism. There are new ways of working developing here that have made the traditional idea of balancing form and content obsolete, and the language being developed here carries a high degree of performance.
MM What’s your take on the Middle East and Asia? Not necessarily in terms of the market but in terms of production? Obviously there is this hype for a while but then also it seems a lot of interesting people are also moving abroad.
OE To be honest I refrain quite often from talking about it because I think there is a sort of big blind spot creating a fundamental problem and that is the Western way of thinking has come to its limit when it comes to understanding what is going on in the Middle East. And it’s one of the few places where when I think about it I realise that the way I think is far more, to a greater extent than I expected, a Western construction. I have been puzzled by this, because in a way, one of the most interesting things about Dubai, Abu Dhabi and places like that is that it is unpredictable. And because its affiliation with the market is so obscene, it is hard to say anything about it. But the truth is if a similar degree of cultural experimentation would take place in, let’s say, Italy, it would be incredible, it would be unbelievable. I mean, of course, I say this metaphorically, it’s very weird because I am incredibly sceptical, and I declined every project that came my way from there so far, but I am also sure, on the other hand, that my blind spots are preventing me from seeing some great potential that I’m completely convinced that there are there.
MM I don’t know if you know this, but we started with the Architectural Association this satellite school in Dubai last year which is called Winter School Middle East – one of the most amazing things to see was … at the beginning you get ten or 20 students, and you know they probably are going to be mainly from the rich families, but there is such a craving for knowledge, especially the girls, it’s unbelievable, because up to a certain age they are being kept hidden and it generates this craving and so all of a sudden we ended up with these 50 people. I think you are totally right. There is a lot of critique and double standards here …
OE It’s incredible.
MM We have to be really careful. Especially, when journalists or writers continue to regurgitate the same arguments. For example in Dubai the labour camp scenarios was a big issue because the initial critique was right, maybe five years ago, when people in the West started talking about this, but then at some point, of course, lots of things changed. I think what’s really problematic is people only start to copy arguments and they don’t touch ground anymore. Actually, the changes since 2005 in the region have been really quite dramatic.
OE Interesting. It’s incredibly interesting. I’m still waiting for the right door to open to go into there because up until now the role I could take there was quite predictable. The biggest challenge is to embrace the fact that we don’t really understand what’s going on, and a little five-day trip is not going to tell us. Fifty five-day trips might make us a little less naive.
MM What’s your general take on art education at the moment?
OE I think one of the great problems of art education is that the cause and effect nature of art is under-nurtured, and I’m sorry to say that I have the same feeling about architectural and design schools. When I say cause and effect, of course, I mean that I believe art can change the world, and I do think the world generally needs to be changed. I think that there is a need for action that has a cause and effect relationship with the world – a shared resistance, a revitalisation, a kind of specific impact on the world. It’s a balance between a philosophical and a pragmatic approach. Schools are teaching disciplines as if they were formal entities, like when you learn how to speak but not how to say something. We are teaching students a lot of words and then we just take it for granted that they will say something meaningful with them. I think many schools have mismanaged their responsibilities. Having said that, I’m developing a programme for students to work in my studio but as part of a public education system, with the University of Berlin. The idea is to develop an institute within another institute, like a virus. And this is not because I think that one cannot, in a traditional academic setting, establish great theoretical minds. But I think the implementation of theory into reality needs to be taken away from the idea that a work of art must be shown in a museum or a street. We need to say that making a work of art is already participatory in terms of being part of the world. And this is why a studio as a platform is very productive compared to the academy.
MM Do you see a danger that it might be perceived as a place where people try to imitate your work in a way?
OE I think this is something which one needs to be aware of but I do not intend to allow the students to actually work in my projects. The challenge here is to use the studio as an amplifier of the feeling that what you do has consequences. It is always about doing things that matter, and this spreads to others. For instance, Kurt Forster, an outstanding scholar, came by for coffee the other day. His particular skill is that he can introduce historical propositions in a contemporary dialogue. If he could talk to a group of students in the studio it would be a very different discussion than at the academy. I’m not saying he shouldn’t talk at the academy but I personally think the further Kurt is away from the academy and closer to the street the better he gets.
MM I was also really interested in discussing the issue of scale. In your work, from the small to the urban scale, there are also pieces that you may argue are non-physical. I’m wondering to which extent physicality and scale matter.
OE I think the scale question breaks into two different discussions. I said that I would like to see art publicly accessible and out in the real world. Unfortunately, public art has to deal with media and infrastructure that have an obsessive relationship with quantifiable ideas. It’s always about how much and how many and how long. And this is counterproductive to content. When I did the Waterfalls in New York, the mayor tried to justify the project by its scale, which I thought was irrelevant. It was a scale proportionate to the content but the scale was not more important than the content. It fitted the city – it could not have been any smaller, if anything it could have been even bigger. On the other hand, in the art or architecture world, scale is dealt with in much more complex and interesting ways and is not counterproductive to content. As long as the content carries the scale, I have no problem whatsoever with small or big whatsoever.
MM But a project like the Waterfalls facilitates a different sort of work because they finance projects that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
OE This is a longer discussion. I think this means navigating what I find responsible. And I agree that there is a power structure in a big project like this, not just because of the companies that were involved. You know, in America a city is not like in Europe, a city is almost comparable to a private business. I have also worked with BMW, Louis Vuitton. Yet, I prefer working in a non-for-profit situation but I’m not afraid of stepping into the most commercial context, and trying to make an artistic argument within that context.
MM In terms of scale, there is this architectural preoccupation that you have. It’s interesting because your background is not so much in architecture but you ventured over. And for me it’s almost exactly the other way around – not that I am more involved in the art world but in terms of scale. I’m wondering at which point this happened. At the Serpentine Pavilion, there was this mixture of scales. In a project like that, is there some kind of hierarchy of interest?
OE I don’t necessarily split them into different fields. Fundamentally, I consider myself an artist, and from that point of view, it can be productive not to define whether it’s an artistic or architectural challenge. But I became interested in architectural challenges simply by the fact that there is this big spatially driven field where very little is being said. Of course there are plenty of unique architects, and generally speaking, young architects are reconsidering this field. But, on the one hand, architects are stigmatised by their affiliation to the market; on the other, artists are subjected to very modern art historical ideas of how the art world is organised, and what one says very rarely makes it out of the art world and into the real world. Suddenly, architecture can be very liberating. The terms “spatial experiment” or “spatial production” have a nice utilitarian ring to them because they are about reality but they are also about responsibility and meaningful questions.
MM In the sense that they have an effect beyond the individual.
OE Yes. Spatial challenges, and I like that about your work, very easily filter down to questions about the collective and the individual, and the way that the two constitute each other, with the implications for democracy, what defines a society, and so on. And what you and I take for granted, and what I admire of you a lot, is that spatial questions are only questions as long as there are people involved – it’s simply about life in space.
MM Rem Koolhaas’ Serpentine Pavilion was the first one that went beyond the pure object and created some kind of forum – the same as in your pavilion, a place where things can happen. It goes beyond the architectural scale and produces not only a public space but also a public. With Gehry’s pavilion, it almost seems that this is now the default mode, so that you have places where people can sit and so on. But the content is not actually delivered with it. Rem’s pavilion, and yours – they weren’t just shells, they were filled with content which was produced by you.
OE Just filling a space with people doesn’t produce content, and it also doesn’t produce the space. For example, the Pantheon at Rome: it’s always full of people but they only come and take, they never come and give, there isn’t a social forum. The challenge is to create a situation where the space produces people and the people produce space where social performance can take on new ways and criticality can re-investigate its own potential. I always thought if I could organise events in the Pantheon I could change the Pantheon. I think it is a pity that such great spaces are left monolithically untouchable because they remain unproductive and academic.
MM But it’s also related to the role of the client. At the Serpentine there is Hans Ulrich Obrist with his interest in content production …
OE Well, the good thing about Hans is that he has a conviction that content is important and then he actually produces content that has physicality. As a client, he’s very generous because he’s proactive. The potential of social activity to constitute space is underestimated. At the Pantheon, it’s a mono activity: everybody is there to see the bloody building or go to the ceremony, excluding temporality. And temporality is a sort of critical trajectory – you can rarely negotiate the quality of a space or an object if it’s static, and what temporality really does is make things relative to time. It’s a softening. A glass is a glass relative to time, and this means that there is an opening to change the glass. Now you take the glass and put it in the world and suddenly it makes a whole lot of a difference. Temporality, to make a long story short, is one of the clues to why it is worth voting. If the world is relative, your voice makes a difference and suddenly the whole idea of subjectivity and collectivity changes. But temporality needs to be handed back to people. In architecture it’s not a new field but it has been formalised as walking on a ramp – temporality as a narration detached from social production.
MM We talked about clients and scale and what that means to the structure of your office. I’m also wondering what would be the criteria to reject a project.
OE I think art does something in the world that is unique, that has a productive criticality. Generally speaking commercial projects by virtue of their generalising nature have a hard time allowing criticality to seep through. There is no doubt about it. But it would be wrong to say that it’s as simple as that – in a non-commercial project you can also find the power exploitation that makes it impossible to develop interesting ideas. There are many museums where it’s extremely hard to make a viable contemporary statement. I accept projects where I think I can make a difference. But this is sometimes uncertain. I agreed to be a part of the Global Design Council organised by the World Economic Forum: 20 global leaders of design, John Maeda, the Idea Factory, people I truly respect. But as democracy unfortunately has become only about what we agree rather than what we disagree, this has infiltrated criticism and productivity in social organisations. I thought a network like the Design Council must be able to do something, but the only way we can work together is on the things we agree, and suddenly we end up doing things that we would have done alone anyway …
MM I think it has a lot to do with awareness for those things. Sometimes one does a commercial project that generates an economic reality for other things to happen. I think it’s important that one sees that as a potential.
OE I do think that this is very rare in the art world. You would probably not compromise in one project in order to do another one. Art is ideologically driven by believing in not compromising. And this is why art is in a way unique. The compromise is not in the relationship with the client, the compromise is in the choice to be a common artist. You choose to be an artist, step out of the world, and then you spend your whole career trying to become a part of the world again. So in short, that is the life of the artist.