Olafur Eliasson

Under den første Momentumbiennalen i 1998 grep Olafur Eliasson inn i lokalsamfunnet i Moss med Green River, et verk som gjorde inntrykk både på fellesskapet rundt og minnene om Momentum. Verket ble presentert i hjertet av byens gamle industriområde, Møllebyen, hvor uskadelig uranine ble blandet i elvevannet. Elva ble slik en knall grønn åre som rant gjennom byen. Green River er en referanse til det vitale økologiske systemet like mye som menneskets avhengighet av drivstoff og kraften som utvinnes av industrialiseringen. Til Momentum10 har kurator Marti Manen gjort et intervju med Eliasson.

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“We live in a world of trajectories”
A conversation with Olafur Eliasson about the Green River

May 16, 2019

Marti Manen: The idea is to talk about the river in Moss in 1998. It has been some years since then. How does it feel for you to talk about it now?

Olafur Eliasson: Even thought it was a while ago, I still think our conversation is today. So that means it is not strange to talk about it as our conversation is a contemporary talk and what we will say is based on what is happening in the world today regardless of how old or how long time ago the subject matter is that we are discussing.

MM: Yes of course. There is something interesting with this piece that it is extremely powerful and somehow the image of it and how it stays as memory. Many people in Moss still remember and know about it so they can have a relationship with it in present time; it is not there, but somehow it is there.

OE: I agree. I think there is a general misconception in art history that the art historian, or the people talking about art, that they seldom travel back in time to visit the artwork or visit the time around when the artist conceived the artwork. The truth is of course that we live in a world of trajectories; we live in a world of systems and networks and then artworks from the past, they are still traveling, and they meet up with us today and therefore, you and I are traveling just like this conversation. It’s an intersection between your trajectory and my trajectory and so was the work that was done in ‘98 in Moss, the Green River. It happened then and there, but the idea and the memory of and the impact of this work is still traveling today. It is also meeting up with us today and I like this notion that everything is constantly on the move, everything is constantly on a journey and this is a meeting up of the different trajectories we create—essentially presence.

MM: With some artworks, not all of them, they are reacting really well to the times. For example, the Green River is one of them. We can talk about it now and it’s related to what is happing right now. If we take the discussion about ecology, this is the perfect work to talk about. It’s an example of how we react to the world and suddenly we have a starting point to talk about our relationship with nature, with water and with pollution and it’s because the work, as you say, is adapting itself to the times so it offers a relationship to us. It’s a good way to talk about what is happening now.

OE: The work is a set of relations or relationships. A work or a situation is sort of like a stack of pancakes of different meanings, and meanings obviously based on what the context at the given time provides for them. As time changes, the value changes, the discursive nature of the work changes and the values change with it and so does the meaningfulness or the purposefulness of an idea. I think that goes for pretty much everything. I don’t think there is anything solid. You could say that an object does exist, but I think we should refer to objects as ‘types’ of objects or as objects that merely exist based on their agency. The success of the agency or the success rate of the agency is a contextual one. In that sense, I’m curious about the question you mentioned of ecology, and also sustainability. We know for a fact that water in our world is becoming an increasing scarcity. You could say the quality of water or the notion of clean water is becoming a more urgent matter. Fresh water at some point is going to be in demand because of the growth in population and the decrease in the quality of fresh water. These two movements go against each other and then we run into the problem where the desalination of water is the only solution. The quality of desalinated water is very low, it is very energy consuming and not very efficient.

MM: This is one of the reasons why the Green River is an extremely powerful image. The river was there before us, but we have an affect on its qualities. With your green, we can feel directly the artificial aspect of it. It’s quite clear that humans are affecting it, polluting it.

OE: It works on two levels and one is, as you say, it is simply terrifying to look at what appears to be polluted and suddenly we are conscious about the importance of not polluting and certainly not without reason. People tend to accept a little bit of pollution if it is for your own good, like washing your car for instance. What appears to be useless or meaningless is to pollute for the sake of pure pleasure because washing your car in modern times seems to be a practical and good quality behavior. Whereas marking art by polluting a whole river is dubious and somewhat questionable. In that sense, Green River succeeds on one level, but I also think it succeeds on another level and that is in our daily navigation, in our conscious presence and in our understanding of the world. Our brain, and we as people, sort of pick what is important to us. Everything that is not important to us, the brain keeps at a distance because otherwise we would be constantly dealing with everything. And that means there is a lot of things we take for granted and there is a lot of things that we don’t see. We don’t see everything because there is too much to see. In that sense, the Green River makes something invisible visible because suddenly what we took for granted, something that was simply there, we don’t have to deal with it if it is put in the dimension of things that I take for granted and is beyond the relevance of what I need to know. Water is not something we should take for granted, it is not beyond your life condition on this planet. Water is fundamentally very much the resource on which our future is based on in terms of ecology and survival, and the health of our society. I like the fact that the Green River also makes that explicit. It takes something that we cannot take for granted as being beyond human necessity and making it into the Green River and making it explicit, we drag it into the Anthropocene, we make it a part of our own ecology, not just part of the world’s ecology, but we make it part of the human ecology. In that sense, with the green, we also have a certain opportunity of rehumanizing the space. It takes it away from being a distant representational dimension that is only referred to in the third person point of view and it puts it into the first person where there is no other dimension than the one you live in with all your authorities and agencies.

MM: There is also something interesting with Moss that the river, and the water is an element we need of course, but there is also the industrial part of it. The river in Moss is a place to get energy and we had an industrial aspect of it there. The industrial zone is not there anymore, but the river stays. The factory and the smell that was there has disappeared, but the image of it is there and we can feel this industrial aspect of this water, it’s a kind of paradox somehow.

OE: I completely agree with you, but we also need to think about what is the chronological objection through which we analyze our society. At the beginning of industrialization there was quite a high skill and it was not unusual, even in our core societies with famers and so on, with water mills. We know from various parts of the world, not just conventional northern European industrialization, water was a source of energy through damns and water mills and it was in fact a predecessor to fossil fuels. When it was discovered about 170 years ago that coal and oil had energy density with such power, it very quickly replaced the labor-intensive water mill and the velocity of it. The energy density of hydro power at the time means that the world had a contract with water, with production, survival, an economy and a relationship with water. Water was also seasonal because there was more water in the spring with the melting of the snow. Water was, to a large extent, an indicator of the season. Many think a water mill automatically brought you to an understanding of the seasons and one could be more ecologically conscious. I don’t think we should romanticize this today, I’m just saying that when it was discovered that one could burn coal and extract oil and burn that, it very quickly resolved the death of the small and to a higher degree, the very local industrial plants that were based on the location of rivers and they were centralized to larger plants and larger, more efficient use of coal. If I’m not wrong, it was less than 200 years ago that we saw this moving away from what would be considered a sustainable source of energy such as water, wind and sun, even though sun at the time wasn’t harvested, and suddenly we started what in geological times, is really the last few seconds you could say. The world as we know it is a lot older, but life is maybe four billion years old since the first small things came up from the ocean; how life came from the ocean to the land is really interesting and worth thinking about. In the last 200 years, we humans totally messed up this whole four billion years of evolution of life and living and began extinction.

The factory in Moss was among the last generation of sustainable human behavior. This is a lot to talk about when we talk about the Green River and I think it is important to focus on that the work is about the experience’s conditions, but looking at Moss and the industrial ruins, it is sustainable living that is in ruins, it is very contemporary. It is the end of having a relationship with nature that we are looking at.

MM: That’s why I think this situation is incredibly important. It has all these elements there as it is about the industrial and the water, but also the scale of it is still under control. It’s an industrial area, but it has a human size. We are talking about ecology, about industrialization and about energy. There is something interesting as well about the technicalities with the Green River. The use of uranine is something related to science and how to observe the movement of water. How did you come to use this material?

OE: I think I started in ‘96. I was living in my studio at the time literally looking across the river Spree at the S-bahn station and I could see the trains, especially at night, and I used to run on the tracks and I could see the water and the occasional gull. And of course, a hundred years ago, these rivers in Berlin were incredibly busy, as busy as these tracks are today. You could still see lots of industrial things along the river for a boat to tie up to and dykes to regulate the water. I was in my studio and I noticed this sort of occasional, contributive look out the window of my guests to pay attention to the river, but no one really saw the sheer amount of water that flowed by every day.

I was invited to the Venice Biennial, and I was discussing with my assistant Tina at the time, and I was debating how could I make the river the artwork? Then I remembered when I was in Chicago and saw the St. Patrick’s Day celebration and quite frankly they colored the river green and I thought this is so brilliant, this is how one suddenly sees the river! So, I found there are other colors, there is in fact a blue and red color and it just so happens that these are toxic, they are not sustainable, but the green is not toxic at all—and this is how it started.

There is a mishap which I’m unhappy with today. It turns out that in ‘68 the Argentinian artist Nicolas Uriburu had used the green color to dye the canal in Venice. And you know in ‘98, which was before the Internet, I was not researching these amazing artists. Uriburu had done something not exactly similar and for different reasons, and it doesn’t matter as he is a great artist and by all means his artistic narrative was different. It was in fact drawing attention to the water in Venice and more important, as we know today, to the state of water and the city which is ecologically close to disaster. So, I just want to credit him and pay respect to the fact that he did something similar, but I didn’t know it at the time. In that sense, I stood on his shoulders and it is only fair to say that.

I later realized there were artists here and there who had drawn the blue and red in a river. It turns out there were a lot of artists and activists like Greenpeace who have drawn attention, you know the red obviously looks like blood so there has been some activism where they have drawn lots of red dye around oil rigs.

MM: It makes sense and it is also connected to something we were talking about at the beginning that it is also related to time and its related to artists positions commenting on what is going on right now. With the rivers we have it connected to reality now, our situation, but it’s also something that is universal somehow. It’s the main questions like life, death, love and hate. It’s something that relates to all of us and it makes sense that we are doing these things to try to understand what is going on and to try to talk about these things. I think it’s a natural process. But each occasion has its own connotation, situation and different types of reactions. It’s not the same thing as ‘68 and ‘98 and now.

OE: It is a mistake to insist on authenticity and a sort of objectification of singular events. Things are close, and you can draw attention towards an ecology in the 60s just like Hans Haacke did. At the time drew attention to something that mattered then and later inspired people in the 70s and 80s. I completely agree with you, but we also know that studies for the sake of science or for the sake of the governance of history and the authority of history, that it is also important to have a clear credit record and system because the things we see today are not lying and everything is not credited, it is ‘uncredited’ and simply losing its synchronicity with chronology. I find that it’s a disembodiment of responsibility also. Suddenly responsibility is theory and it’s a record of terms that you cannot execute because it’s just thinking.

MM: At the same time, we could talk about Canaletto and Bruegel and paintings from the 18th century and the river is there as well, so there is a connection and this idea of artists looking and reacting. I think it is important and interesting, but there is also this time thing. If we think about you, in ‘98, the river in Bremen, in Moss and then Iceland, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Tokyo—it was 2000 then—so it’s a short period of time with many rivers and I can imagine they are all connected, but each one is different and particular. I’m interested in this lapse of time and to ask you about the differences between the rivers and how do you feel about all of them?

OE: In the sand village, the river being in the dessert is a huge testimony to life and the water has been incredibly regulated in these waterways. In Tokyo, the river runs through the inner city by the cherry blossom streets and the river has a more contemplative role. Water and waterfalls, in traditional Japanese sense, offer the ability for the gods and spirituality as such on Earth. Water is an opportunity to connect with spirituality and water represents a significant element in the understanding of holistic ecology which is what the culture is based on in Japan, or this identity of culture is historically based on. In this way every society has a significant idea of how water represents something in their ecosystem of their identity. For me as an artist at the time, I was particularly interested in the fact that there was something international or even global, just like the weather or the sun, that every person and every area has their own local version of what is global and in that sense, I like the fact that water draws us together because everybody needs it, but everybody has a special way of making the water to express your ideas around you. Water is a special opportunity for you to realize yourself. Locally, water is listening to what you want to say and globally, water creates a conversation where we are all being heard. In that sense, I wanted to try to do it in different places. One of the reasons why I stopped, and not many people know this, is that 9/11 happened and our societies were suddenly changed overnight, and the instigation of fear was suddenly solidified. Fear became a narrative which was a resource the populists and the nationalist could tap in to and this type of collective fear created a change and an end of a certain kind of golden age of trust and confidence. Suddenly the Green River, as an ability to constitute a public space and as an ability to exclusify something collective, became also a way to abuse this fear or fragility of something collective. I wasn’t very confident to suddenly have this exploitive issue on my hands and I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just said “ok, I need to think about this” and I just felt for the time being it simply is not something I want to do.

MM: I agree with you about this September 11th fear that changed everything. It’s interesting also talking with people here who worked technically with installing the piece in 1998 and how easy it was for them. I asked them if it was difficult and they just did it, this idea that you want to do something, and you just do it. Right now, it’s impossible working with the public space and it’s probably connected to this fear and the need to regulate everything and to be aware of fear. It’s changing the context and the way we can work. When talking with Atle Gerhardsen and the technicians, they wanted to do it and they just did it—and probably it’s impossible to do now.

OE: There is also something Scandinavian about it because in the other countries I did it myself. I probably could not have done it in Los Angeles because in America, who knows, they would have thrown me in jail for 10 years. It’s highly unpredictable what security the legal system in America provides for. So, I’m just saying in Scandinavia there is a trust in authorities, but which has probably been questioned since then. Also, the trust in the public sphere has been questioned or it has been undermined by the increasing privatization of the thought process in the public purpose. So, I agree with you that it would not be possible today for various reasons.

MM: I have to say that it is amazing to see how the residents of Moss still remember the Green River and they talk about it and how they feel a connection with the river. It’s an artwork that has been there forever—it’s going to be there.

OE: One of the particular successes in Moss is that the buildings around the river are in red brick and even the granite, which is a traditional Norwegian stone, has a soft red or warmer tone. It’s not the blue or salty granite that you also see in Norway, it’s a warmer granite and of course with the green color in terms of the formal artistic principles, it plays up against the complimentary area of the scale. So, the Green River was very supported by the red surroundings, and the Green River also made the red surroundings stand out more. In that sense it was a very successful version of the Green River because it made not just the river, it became an amplifier of everything you could see.

Olafur Eliasson Web

Photo credits:

  1. Olafur Eliasson – Green River (1998)
    Uranine, water. Moss, Norway 1998.
    Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
    Photo: Olafur Eliasson
    © Olafur Eliasson
  2. Portrait of Olafur Eliasson
    Photo: Runa Maya Mørk Huber / Studio Olafur Eliasson
    © 2017 Olafur Eliasson