Olafur Eliasson

During the first Momentum biennial in 1998, Olafur Eliasson intervened in the community of Moss with the Green River, a work that impacted both the community and the future memories of Momentum. The work was presented in the heart of the town’s industrial area, where harmless uranine was released into the river, transforming it into a ribbon of bright green. Green River is a reference to the vital ecological systems as much as it is about man’s dependency on fuel and power resulting from industrialization. For Momentum10, Olafur Eliasson was interviewed by Marti Manen.

Artist web page

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

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 though the installation of Green river took place a while ago, our conversation is happening today, so what we say will be based on what’s happening in the world today, regardless of how old the subject of our discussion is.

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 like the idea that everything is constantly on the move, constantly on a journey, and that this conversation is a meeting up of the different trajectories we’ve created as well as the creation of new trajectories. The truth is that we live in a world of trajectories; we live in a world of systems and networks. Artworks from the past are still travelling, and they meet up with us today. You and I are travelling, and this conversation is a moment of intersection between your trajectory and my trajectory – and so was the moment of doing an artwork in Moss in 1998: Green river. It happened then and there, but the idea and the memory and the impact of the work are still travelling today.

MM: With some artworks, not all of them, they are reacting really well to the times. For example, 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 relationships. A work of art is sort of like a stack of pancakes of different meanings; as time changes, so do people’s ideas about the work. I think that goes for pretty much anything – I don’t think there is anything solid. You could say that solid objects exist, but I think we should consider objects as existing only in terms of their agency, an agency that is always contextual. That’s one sense in which I’m curious about the issues you raised: ecology and sustainability. For example, we know for a fact that water is becoming increasingly scarce. You could say the issue of water quality is becoming ever more urgent.

MM: This is one of the reasons why Green river is an extremely powerful image. The river was there before us, but we have an effect 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. One is, as you say, that it is simply terrifying to look at what appears to be polluted – which makes us conscious of the importance of not polluting. So Green river succeeds on that level, but I also think it succeeds on another level – the level of our daily navigation of the world, our conscious presence in and understanding of the world. Our brains select what is important to us, and keep everything that is not important to us at a distance – otherwise, we would constantly have to deal with everything.

This means that there are a lot of things we take for granted, a lot of things that we simply don’t see. Green river makes something invisible visible – something we took for granted, something that was simply there, something we didn’t need to deal with or to know about. But, of course, water is not something we should take for granted! Water is very much the key resource on which our future depends, in terms of ecology and survival and the health of our society. So I like the fact that Green river also makes water itself, and our relationship to it, explicit. We have dragged rivers into the Anthropocene, made them a part of our own ecology, part of our human ecology.

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; 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. In the early industrial era watermills were very common. Water has been, and is, a source of energy through dams and watermills – in fact, water is a predecessor of fossil fuels. Once the high energy density of coal and oil was discovered, they very quickly replaced water as a source of power. At the time the world had a contract with water – production, survival, the economy all depended on water. And water is seasonal; there is more water in the spring when the snow melts, so a watermill automatically brings you to some awareness of the seasons. Less than two hundred years ago we moved away from what would now be considered a sustainable source of energy.

Life is more than four billion years old, and in the last two hundred years – what is, in geological time, really just the last few seconds – we humans have totally messed up the whole four billion years of evolution of life. The water-powered factory in Moss was part of the last generation of sustainable human behavior. Looking at Moss and the industrial ruins, what we see is the ruins of sustainable living, the end of a particular relationship with nature.

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 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 started in 1996. At the time I was living in my studio, looking across the river Spree at an S-Bahn station every day. I could see the trains, especially at night. I could see the water and the occasional gull. A hundred years ago the rivers in Berlin were incredibly busy, as busy as the train tracks are today. You could still see lots of artifacts of the industrial era along the river, like places to tie up boats and locks to regulate the height of the water. I noticed that guests to my studio would occasionally look out the window at the river, but no one really paid attention to the sheer amount of water that flowed by every day.

I was invited to the Venice Biennale, and in discussions with Tina Petras, my assistant at the time, I was wondering how I could make a river an artwork. I remembered being in Chicago and seeing the St. Patrick’s Day celebration – they colored the river green! And I thought: this is how to make people see the river! I learned that there are other colors of dye that can be used, like blue and red, but that these are toxic. But the green is not at all toxic and is fully biodegradable. So this is how I got started.

There is one mishap that I’m unhappy about: apparently, in 1968 the Argentinian artist Nicolas Uriburu also used green dye to color the canal in Venice. In 1998 – which, remember, was before Google – I hadn’t yet discovered this amazing artist. What Uriburu did was not exactly the same and was done for different reasons. So his artistic narrative was different but, still, I want to credit him and pay respect to the fact that he did something similar. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I stood on his shoulders, and it is only fair to say that.

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 1968 and 1998 and now.

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 1998, 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 want to ask you about the differences between the rivers and how you feel about all of them?

OE: Water plays a significant role in every society’s ecosystem and identity. As an artist, I was particularly interested in the fact that water – like the weather and the sun – is a global phenomenon that is encountered by everyone in their own local experience, wherever they may be. I like the fact that, even though water draws us together – because everyone needs it – at the same time, each culture relates to water in its own way. This is why I wanted to try to do Green river in different places.

One of the reasons why I stopped doing Green river is that 9/11 happened. Our societies changed overnight. Fear was promoted, and this collective fear brought an end to a golden age of trust and confidence. In this new context, Green river became not a way to constitute a public space and produce a collective experience, but something that would trigger people’s fears and remind them of the fragility of our collective experience. And I didn’t want this to be what Green river was about.

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. 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. In the other countries I dyed the water myself. I probably shouldn’t have done so in Los Angeles though – in America, who knows, they might have thrown me in jail for ten years! In Scandinavia there was more trust in the authorities – which has probably declined since then. I agree with you that it would not be possible to do Green river the same way today.

MM: I have to say that it is amazing to see how the residents of Moss still remember 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 particularly nice things about doing Green river in Moss is that the buildings around the river are in red brick, and the local granite has a soft warm tone. So even in terms of formal artistic principles, the green color plays up against the complementary colors – Green river was itself heightened by the red surroundings, while also making these surroundings stand out more. It was a very successful version of Green river because it became an amplifier not just of the river, but 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