Interviews

Olafur Eliasson on Turning Light into Color

Olafur Eliasson with some of his 'Color Experiment Paintings' (© 2013 Olafur Eliasson)
Olafur Eliasson with some of his ‘Color Experiment Paintings’ (© 2013 Olafur Eliasson)

For the past six years, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has been working with a color chemist to produce paint pigments that correspond to each nanometer of the visible light spectrum. As he tests his pigments, he creates disk-shaped digital paintings — called the Color Experiment Paintings — that reveal different gradients of the color spectrum. Last year, as part of this series, Eliasson analyzed seven works by the English artist J.M.W. Turner (including “A Disaster At Sea” [c. 1835] and “Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834” [1834–35]) and created corresponding pieces for each that distill Turner’s use of light and color. Eliasson’s Turner Color Experiments — paintings that fade from brown to green and from blue to red — are currently on display at Tate Britain alongside an exhibition of Turner’s late work.

Beyond this experiment, one might say that Eliasson has translated many of Turner’s practices and ideas into modern times. The contemporary artist, like his predecessor, is interested in how we perceive light and the ephemeral atmospheres it creates. As part of their practices, both artists observed the landscape and the changing effects of light —Turner painted watercolors (frequently of the sun hovering over the ocean), while Eliasson often takes photographs of Icelandic landscapes while walking, sailing, or flying. And Turner, like Eliasson, was very interested in color theory; he taught a class on it at the Royal Academy and subscribed to a publication on chromatography.

Installation view, 'The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free' at Tate Britain (courtesy Tate Britain)
Installation view, ‘The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free’ at Tate Britain (courtesy Tate Britain)

But perhaps the comparison that resonates most deeply with Eliasson is, as he put it to the Tate, Turner’s “distinct emotional ability to shape and frame light,” an effect Eliasson strives for in his own work, most famously in The Weather Project: a giant, semi-circular shape made up of bright lights and resembling the sun, which hung in the Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2003. By “emotional ability,” I think Eliasson refers to the way in which Turner’s works, especially his late, abstract ones, envelop the viewer in a constant whirlwind of the brushstrokes. But, as Eliasson says in this interview, to really experience Turner’s paintings, the viewer must take the time to look — something Eliasson hopes his series will encourage people to do.

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Elisa Wouk Almino: In your works, the viewer is usually enveloped in large-scale installations: there is no center, no clear end or beginning. But in your Turner Color Experiments, we are uncharacteristically placed before a series of painted pictures. Why did you choose to work on a flatter surface in this series?

Olfaur Eliasson, "Color Experiment Painting #4" (click to enlarge)
Olfaur Eliasson, “Color Experiment Painting #4” (courtesy Olafur Eliasson) (click to enlarge)

Olafur Eliasson: Actually, I have been working for a number of years now on a series of color experiments on circular canvases, and the Turner Color Experiments are part of this larger project. My goal is to formulate a new color theory based on the full spectrum of visible light. These works deal with the translation of light into pigment, which of course has long been one of the central concerns of painting in general, and of Turner’s work especially. So, the choice of a flat surface, a canvas, and paint had to do with the themes of the artworks themselves. The circular shape, I feel, generates a feeling of endlessness and allows viewers to take in the artworks in a decentralized, meandering way.

EWA: You’ve said that you are hoping to “extract [Turner’s] sense of ephemera from the objects of desire that his paintings have become.” Do you see your series as revealing the heart of Turner’s work that gets overlooked?

OE: Turner’s works have been revered for so long; they have become so familiar and institutionalized, you might say, that we have forgotten how to look at them — we miss how radical they actually are. For Turner, color was never an autonomous phenomenon or an aesthetic end in itself — he used it to create ephemeral effects and to leave traditional depiction behind. The paintings are almost abstractions, and I remember my reaction when I first encountered Turner in an art history book as a child: I thought, ‘wow, what is such an abstract painting doing here before all these more conventional, realistic paintings?’ But I think that in abstracting the colors even further from representation, I have created paintings that are unique artworks in their own right, independent of the reference to Turner. And that’s how I’d like others to approach them: we need to embrace abstraction and be embraced by it!

JMW Turner, "The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834" (1834–35), oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 48 1/2 in (92.1 x 123.2 cm) (via philamuseum.org)
JMW Turner, “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834” (1834–35), oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 48 1/2 in (92.1 x 123.2 cm), The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928, Philadelphia Museum of Art (via philamuseum.org)

EWA: The Turner paintings used for the color experiments are inspired by natural phenomena, a relationship found in your work as well. There seem to be a few layers at work here: Turner translated his experiences of nature, and you, in turn, translate Turner’s vision in your paintings. How is the role of nature different for you in this series as opposed to in past work?

OE: That’s an interesting question, which I think touches on something very important about how we understand nature. I do not believe that you can truly separate nature and culture, because there is in fact no outside. As animals, we humans are always part of nature. The science journalist Lone Frank said in a conversation I had with her recently for my Riverbed catalogue that “culture is something that arises from the human brain’s way of functioning, from our way of being animals.” We think we know what nature is, but it has more to do with what we exclude, what we say is not nature.

Olafur Eliasson, color palette (© 2014 Olafur Eliasson) (click to enlarge)
Olafur Eliasson, color palette (© 2014 Olafur Eliasson) (click to enlarge)

I suppose that your point is that my paintings are a kind of mediation on Turner’s mediation on an experience of nature. But perhaps we should look instead at the pigments as part of nature, and think of painting as a material phenomenon that can be perceived the way we sense a rainbow, a river, or a volcano. 

EWA: David Hockney once said there is a “relationship between the way we depict space and behave in it.” What do you make of this idea within the context of your work in relation to Turner’s?

OE: It’s a fascinating proposal, but I am generally not as interested in what an artwork depicts as in what it produces, its performative aspect, the way it induces you to act and behave in space.

EWA: You’ve worked in series before, particularly with photographs. How do the paintings relate to one another within the Turner Color Experiments series? Is there any order to how you have presented them?

OE: I began the series by collecting reproductions of just over 30 of Turner’s works, and then I gradually singled out paintings that I felt had the most varied palettes. To decide on their presentation for Tate, I had a maquette of the space created in my studio, and I moved small reproductions of the paintings around and tried out different arrangements until I found the one I liked. It was a very subjective process.

Olfaur Eliasson, "Color Experiment Painting #10" (click to enlarge)
Olfaur Eliasson, “Color Experiment Painting #10” (courtesy Olafur Eliasson)

EWA: How do you see these works standing on their own — without Turner as a reference?

OE: The works are experiments or studies, but of course they are artworks to be viewed in their own right. Experimentation is important, but in the end it is always artistic experimentation; there is no hypothesis or scientific method. The works continue to be experimental even in their “finished” state. I try to maintain this tension, to create works that ask questions rather than give answers.

Olafur Eliasson: Turner Color Experiments and The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free both continue at Tate Britain (Millbank, London) through January 25.

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