Ólafur Elíasson – Mesmerizing art installations to question our perception of the world

The work of Ólafur Elíasson can make us question our perception of the world. Here’s a collection of examples.

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It is impossible to work in the field of lighting design and not to know the work of Ólafur Elíasson. The Danish artist achieved huge international recognition in the past ten years and many museums and urban sites have been hosting his art installations: “The weather project” at the Tate Modern in 2003, “New York City Waterfall” in 2008, “Your rainbow panorama” at the ARoS Kunstmuseum in Aarhus in 2011, “Ice watch” in Copenhagen in 2014, “Life” at the Foundation Bayeler in Basel in 2021, just to name a few of the most famous ones. Elíasson’s work ranges from art installations for galleries and museums exhibitions to architecture, product design and urban installations.

Geometry, colours, light reflections, mirrors and natural elements are the key components of his art pieces. According to Elíasson, art is the perfect tool to raise awareness among the general public about the environment and all the visual perception mechanisms that we experience every day without even realising it. With his artworks Elíasson constantly challenges us to carefully question what we are experiencing, how we are perceiving our surroundings and – especially – how we are impacting the environment. To make environmental issues more visible and understandable to the public, the artist and his team of designers in Berlin research natural phenomena and translate them into art pieces questioning our perception and highlighting the impact that nature and human life have on each other. 

The most innovative and relevant aspect of Elíasson’s work is the central role that he gives to the viewer. The viewer must have an active participation when experiencing the installations to make them alive and real art pieces. «My work is completely dependent on the spectator, who turns my ideas into art», he says in the episode of the “Abstract” series on Netflix dedicated to his work and artistic approach. Precisely for this reason most of his pieces can be observed from different points of view and by changing the perspective the viewer can completely change what he sees, get different stimuli and grasp new meanings of the art piece. This approach strives to remind the viewer that his own experience is always unique and valid and his own participation gives to the artwork purpose and significance. At the same time, his installations point out that our idea of reality is strictly dependent on our perception of it: if we do change our point of view, a new different reality can come to light. 

A few of the installations that best represent this philosophy are Beauty (1993), Room for One Colour (1997) and Your Uncertain Shadow (2010). 


Beauty 

1. Beauty by Ólafur Elíasson - ph Anders Sune Berg

Beauty (1993) is one of the first installations realised by Ólafur Elíasson and was shown multiple times in different museums and exhibitions. It consists of a very thin layer of water drops falling down from the ceiling and a luminaire projecting light into the water with a precise angle. When the viewer is standing in the right spot, a visual effect reminiscent of a rainbow becomes visible on the water surface, dancing on the water drops as they fall. The piece involves a careful design of the position of the water drops, the light direction and the angle of vision; two viewers standing side by side will never experience the same rainbow and if there is nobody in the room experiencing the installation, there is no rainbow effect at all and therefore no art piece. 

 

Room for One Colour

2. Room for One Colour by by Ólafur Elíasson - ph Anders Sune Berg

Ólafur Elíasson loves to play with yellow light. For this installation he used monochromatic yellow luminaires in an empty room. The yellow light is able to completely shift our colour perception: everything we see under that type of lighting is perceived as greyish, with darker tones and somehow “flatter”. This installation intends to make viewers realise that what we see and comprehend from our surroundings is completely dependent on our visual perception. Under a different light, we see a completely different world. 

Your Uncertain Shadow 

3. Your Uncertain Shadow by Ólafur Elíasson - ph Anders Sune Berg

Your Uncertain Shadow (2010) consists of an array of luminaires with different light colours – blue, green, orange and magenta – projecting light on a white wall. By standing in front of the projectors and moving across the space, the viewers will see their coloured silhouettes cast on the wall. The way the audience interacts with the installation makes the art piece itself and the more people participate in it, the more dynamic the effect of overlapped shadows. With a very simple installation, Ólafur Elíasson managed to create an engaging and lively art installation where the viewers are the main protagonists.   

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