Beauty and Wonder in Olafur Eliasson’s Art

The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is perhaps most known for his stunning The weather project (2003).  In a giant hall of the Tate Modern gallery in London, viewers were mesmerized by an installation which consisted of a yellow sun shining through a mist, imitating the setting sun in Africa. Those who were there spoke of a supernatural experience, many were feeling the heat though in fact there was not any:

“People responded to their transformation in the most extraordinary ways: they lay down flat, flapping their arms and legs as if they could make snow angels on the Tate’s concrete floor, talking to strangers in the mist.”


One of Eliasson’s earlier works, entitled By Means of a Sudden Intuitive Realization (1996), looks futuristic and spiritual at the same time, which is perhaps a rare and surprising combination, and quite typical of his art. In its dark interior, “a white geodesic dome of hexagonal and pentagonal fibreglass panels” contains a fountain illuminated by a strobe light. Such domes were designed by architect-mathematician Einar Thornstein to be used in geothermal drilling in Iceland. You can see this work and many others on the artist’s website:

Michelle Kuo explains:

“The brief moments of illumination allow the viewer to see the water’s ever-shifting form as a sequence of frozen instants.” (1)

In an interview Eliasson, who has an Icelandic father (also an artist), recalled his childhood expeditions to Iceland as a source of his mythical imagination:

“… they’d [his father and his father’s friend – another artist] talk about the moss and the stones and get lost in the various reds and browns and greens. … They’d see trolls’ faces in the sides of the mountains. … I guess, I grew up surrounded by art that embraced both abstraction and mythology and allowed plenty of space for imagination.” (2)

In 1999 he finished The Glacier Series, which is a haunting photo catalogue of Icelandic glaciers. By now, many of the glaciers have disappeared or substantially diminished. He has always been at the avant-garde of the environmental consciousness. In his Berlin studio cooking “organic, vegetarian and locally sourced food” is a vital part of the artistic process.

His signature is bringing nature into the art gallery on the one hand and intervening artistically in the landscape on the other ( The examples of the former are numerous, starting with the extraordinary Moss Wall, an artificial pond, lava floor and last but not least the river bed, an installation which invited visitors to walk upstream to the source. One of his obsessions and a frequent motif is the horizon, the symbolism of which conjures depth, infinity, adventure, and also the abyss, as the sun disappears behind the horizon.

I feel drawn to his art precisely because of these qualities of expansiveness and contemporaneity, which are at the same time rooted in primal, ancient, mythological, instinctual bedrock, which has remained constant for the human race since our beginning. Isn’t Sunspace to Shibukawa a modern answer to Stonehenge?

“The ceiling of this small pavilion… is pierced by an arc of lenses aligned with the arc of the sun through the sky at the site over the course of the year. … Every two weeks, on days that correspond with a traditional Japanese seasonal calendar, a rainbow is projected as a perfect circle within the pavilion.” (3)


Olafur Eliasson on the cover of Wired


(1) Michelle Kuo (author), Olafur Eliasson (editor), Olafur Eliasson: Experience, Phaidon Press 2018

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.



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5 Responses to Beauty and Wonder in Olafur Eliasson’s Art

  1. Thanks for bringing this artist to my attention. Wonderful wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

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