Olafur Eliasson

Parks and gardens have long been an important index of man’s relationship to nature. Today some artists, in rather naive fashion, seem to be trying to restore an imaginary wilderness using the latest technology. But how would a garden look if it highlighted its own artificiality while leaving nature’s “otherness” intact? One could look for an answer in Olafur Eliasson’s recent piece The Curious Garden, 1997, a trio of installations that addressed three different forms of sensory perception.

The first and largest room was entirely empty, but it was suffused with a strange orange-yellow light streaming in through the glass roof. Used, among other things, to sharpen optical contrasts on the Autobahn, this form of artificial light bleaches objects of color, so that whoever found himself in this unreal space of pure light and dark contrasts couldn’t help trying to imagine the lost colors. As in a landscaped garden, a promenade led through a narrow passage into a smaller room that was subdivided on one side by a blackthorn hedge, so that one felt as though one’s gaze was guided by vistas and screens. Beyond this hedge, the outside world broke violently and without warning into the farthest corner of this leafy bower; the third room contained only a frosty breeze emanating from an open window. A ventilator hung from a wire and blew in the wind, partially blocking entrance to the room.

In The Curious Garden Eliasson continued his work with light, although in earlier projects he was concerned less with nature than with altering our perception of it. Last year at Rotterdam’s “Manifesta I,” for example, he used strobe lights to illuminate a water fountain located in a pavilion behind the Boymans-van-Beuningen museum in such a way that the drops of water seemed to hover in the air. More recently, at the close of a fund-raiser for the restoration of the Kunsthalle’s roof, he installed Fire into the roof, 1997, a yellow light that shone into Basel’s night sky.

In Iceland, Eliasson’s native country, the landscape exerts a powerful pull, even in urban areas. This has perhaps innoculated his art against a nostalgic, romanticized relationship with nature. The color-devouring light in The Curious Garden, for example, conveyed a sense of total otherness.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.