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A fly-on-the-wall view of Olafur Eliasson’s laboratory

Olafur Eliasson has removed the walls of the Beyeler Foundation in Basel and has let water, plants and animals as well as people into the museum.

This content was published on June 14, 2021 - 09:00
Meret Arnold, Ester Unterfinger (photos)

In his accustomed spectacular style, he has created a highly aesthetic environment to stimulate the senses. A world-class art space becomes a laboratory where the biological perspective dominates.

April 21, 2021, 7:30 p.m.: A green disrupts an idyllic scene. I am walking on a curving path through an English-landscaped garden at the Beyeler Foundation. Perfectly positioned clusters of trees, clearings and water evoke a natural landscape.

A toxic green glows from the pond in front of the museum. The first impression from my visit to the Olafur Eliasson exhibition is that green, too, is a matter of perception.

The fluorescent pond is part of an installation called “Life” that the artist has created for the Beyeler Foundation. He added uranine to the water, a non-toxic dye that is used to track water currents. Environmental activitists used it to colour the Limmat in Zurich in 2019 and to draw attention to their causes. Olafur Eliasson, a Danish artist of Icelandic origin, has tipped uranine into waters in Germany, northern Europe, Los Angeles and Tokyo since the 1990s for his work “Green RiverExternal link.”

“I used it here to emphasise the presence of the water,” the artist writes of his work “Life.” It’s both a simple and effective way of seeing and questioning something anew. Our relationship with nature, for example.

Interior and exterior in dialogue

The Beyeler Foundation is known as a place where architecture, art and nature combine. Renzo Piano’s building nestles in the park and its glass facades open to the surrounding environment. Looking out at the scenery is an intrinsic part of visiting an exhibition there.

Exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation Basel

Runs until July 11, 2021.

Open all hours.

Museum websiteExternal link

LivestreamExternal link

Studio Olafur EliassonExternal link

End of insertion

But though the interior and exterior are in dialogue, they each have clearly allotted spaces. I am here; the countryside is outside. It is a duality that complicates our understanding of the countryside and impedes our connection to it. Especially here in Switzerland, where nature is one of our major assets.

For “Life,” Olafur Eliasson actually eliminates that separation. He has removed the glass panes on the southern side and raised the water-level of the pond. Where Claude Monet’s lily paintings used to hang, the water from the pond flows into the museum and spreads through the exhibition halls. Access for visitors is via a wooden walkway above the water.

Breaking down barriers

It is as though Eliasson has extended the limits of space. We are neither inside nor outside, neither in the museum nor in nature. Time limits have also been lifted: the exhibition is open 24 hours. And it’s the very first exhibition intended not only for people -- animals and plants are invited too.

The concepts of inclusion, diversity and cultural participation reach new heights here.

“‘Life’ presents a model for a future landscape that is hospitable,” Eliasson writes. As always, he collaborated with academics of various disciplines for his work on this project. On the project’s websiteExternal link, he assembles ideas from anthropologists, philosophers, neurobiologists and evolutionary biologists.

In bite-sized portions, it offers access to the most recent theoretical approaches to rethinking our coexistence with the planet in a time of climate crisis. We read, presumably for the first time, about the concept of the Planthropocene, developed by the anthropologist Natasha Myers with reference to the Anthropocene to research the potential of the relationship between plants and humans. You can explore multispecies approaches that have already led to legal rights for plants or rivers. Or you may  learn more about the aquatic plants selected for “Life” by Günther VogtExternal link, a landscape architect and an old friend of Eliasson’s.

April 21, 2021, 9:00 p.m.: The sun is setting. And as the light gradually disappears from the sky, the interior of the pavilion-like rooms are filled with a blue-violet shimmer. Ultraviolet light changes the appearance of the pond. The water loses its transparency and appears milky, almost waxen. The bright green turns into a yellowish green. The colours of the plants also soften; they fade into the background as blue-black voids.

In discussions, the artist stresses how much significance he gives to physical and sensuous experience in our access to and participation in the world. He gives as an example his work “Ice WatchExternal link” (first produced in 2014), for which he installed 12 huge blocks of ice from Greenland on public squares in Copenhagen, Paris and London to raise awareness of melting glaciers. While the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented its report on global warming in Copenhagen, the people outside could feel, hear and watch as a real block of ice melted.

We watch ourselves watching

Although Eliasson’s work carries messages, it leaves us with considerable freedom in how we experience it. On my visit to Basel, I watched as people wandered along the wooden walkways through the rooms, how they examined the aquatic plants closely and picked them up or pushed them around to create a new “lily picture.” Some even climbed into the pond to feel the water and plants on their own bodies.

Eliasson’s artworks seemed to encourage all kinds of behaviour. In his spectacular and best-known work, “The Weather Project,” visitors to the Tate Modern in 2003 meditated in front of an artificial sunset, and adopted poses or lay on the floor to see themselves in the mirrored ceiling.

In “Life,” we also watch ourselves watching. Not via a mirror, but through the eyes of others. Whether I stand on a hillock by the pond or on the walkway, my gaze is always reflected by those looking at the work from the other side. The public and the stage blend together.

Is self-reflection uniquely human?

Self-reflection is a characteristic that separates people from animals and plants. At least, so we believed for a long time. An increasing amount of research is uncovering the cognitive abilities of animals and the intelligence of plants. And it is becoming clear how little we still know about our fellow inhabitants of the earth -- even though our existence depends on them. Without plants’ transformation of light into oxygen, we would not be able to breathe.

“Life” doesn’t present a finished product. It is more like a laboratory, in which a change of perspective is tested. The project’s movement is in many senses on its edges. Breathing with the trees carries the suggestion of a wellness seminar for western society. Inclusion becomes a harmonious transfiguration of the world. Just think of the difficulties the Swiss have in living peacefully with a few wolves.

The Beyeler Foundation and Studio Olafur Eliasson, two global players in the art world, have, by contrast, harmonised perfectly. Symbiosis, a concept to which Olafur Eliasson turned his attention recently in his exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich, works here. Conspiracy -- another concept to which he is drawn -- takes place not only between plants and people but also between the two companies, which have to remain profitable.

Eliasson researches topical subjects such as the Anthropocene and tests their potential for art. And at the Beyeler Foundation, visitors can book a morning meditation by the pond instead of an art tour. Is his art now pure green washing? Is the group of predominantly female academics a strategy? Is the green pond primarily conceived for Instagram?

Less meditation, more humour?

May 19, 2021, 5.30 a.m.: Four weeks later I visit “Life” once more. This time early in the morning on my laptop. I open the livestreamExternal link accompanying the exhibition. I click through the cameras that Eliasson has installed in the garden and in the exhibition rooms. They are equipped with a variety of optical filters that simulate the perspective of another species – the kaleidoscope-like fractured vision of a fly’s compound eye, or the infrared vision of a bat.

Perhaps what is sometimes missing from these big subjects that Eliasson takes on and from the beauty of his work is simply humour. Not to diminish the seriousness, but to allow us to recover from it. Looking at life from a biocentric perspective, either through the “eye” of the fly that is crawling around on my tabletop or of the neighbouring cherry tree, is very entertaining.

(Translated by, Catherine Hickley edited by Virginie Mangin)

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