Olafur Eliasson creates a close encounter between us as individuals and the infinitely powerful and indescribable forces of nature.
Installation Art in Exploring Human Experience with Weather
At first glance, The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson is a seemingly simplistic yet captivating exhibition that seeks to contain and illustrate the majesty of the sun and sky into a single space. As the individual experiences the exhibition in full and remains inside the space for an extended period of time, though, the experience of seeing and being with the blinding sphere of the sun invites them to encounter themselves and their relationship with the larger forces of the natural world. Through this exhibition, Olafur Eliasson not only emphasizes the vastness of the sun and sky as they exist over civilization, but he also seeks to communicate the power of weather and how wholly interconnected it is with the human. By gazing up at the sun and sky, the individual also sees themselves both literally reflected back, suggesting that our experience of these natural forces allows us to dig deeper to see ourselves more clearly. As a result, Eliasson introduces the topic of climate change through this project, underscoring our intimate relationship with the weather and sun itself. Eliasson’s consideration of space and three-dimensional structures to form his work are perhaps the most effective and impactful modes of building the greater meaning and fantastical experience behind the exhibition.
Installed in 2003 as a part of the fourth annual Unilever Commissions Series, The Weather Project made its first public appearance in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. In simple terms, the artwork consists of a large orange sun rising out of a mist-filled sky that seems to come into the space from the outside, recreating the grandeur of our own sun and sky. This mist engulfs the entire exhibition space, so that as the viewer steps into the hall, they are shrouded in this sort of fog that continues with them. The fog comes from numerous haze machines placed around the exhibition, releasing fog at different speeds and times, so that the mist alternates between gathering into cloud-like shapes and dissipating throughout the day to further emphasize the feeling of the actual sky. Entering the exhibition space, the eye is immediately drawn upwards towards the large hanging glowing sphere. As the viewer tries to grasp the scale of the exhibition hall, the view of the ceiling disappears, gradually giving way to a replica of the space below. This ceiling, in other words, is a large mirror that reflects everything below. This mirror is a crucial part of the exhibition as a whole, because not only does it reflect back the people watching the exhibition so that they see themselves amidst the mist and sun, but it also helps to create the spherical shape of the sun itself. The sun is actually made up of two hundred low-sodium, glowing, mono-frequency lamps that form a giant semi-circle as they hang from the air. Once this semi-circle is reflected against the ceiling, this creates the illusion of a complete sphere, connecting the real space with the reflection above. The light that radiates from these mono-frequency lamps exists at increasingly narrow frequencies so that the only colors visible are yellow and black. The light that emanates from this sun bathes the visitors into an atmosphere like that of a sunset, transforming the entire hall into a vast, fantastical landscape. Although the outward appearance of this exhibition seems rather simple, the Scandinavian artist had to employ materials such as mono-frequency lights, projection foil, haze machines, mirror foil, aluminum, and scaffolding to create the full effect of this scene. By creating this sense of control over something so illusory and difficult to grasp, Eliasson allows the audience to acknowledge that distance between ourselves and the larger forces of the universe as we make them our own.
Eliasson’s inspiration for this project actually developed in London, on a warm day when he overheard people discussing global warming because it had snowed just the day before; he found that the weather was quite dynamic. Although his exhibition does not directly portray the idea of global warming, it does give a more abstract representation of an all-absorbing atmosphere, inviting the individual to interpret and understand what they want from it. The mist constantly shifts into shapes and dissolves again, creating a sense of movement and the changing nature of clouds and air. The sun itself remains static and glowing, possessing the viewer with awe in portraying the permanence of the sun in our world. The combination of these elements pushes viewers to consider their place in the natural world, and how minuscule they are in comparison to such a grand sky.
When the viewer sees the reflection of themselves with the sun and mist in the glow of the hall, they are physically seeing their relationship and proximity to the sun, which invites them to reflect on the intimate power of the sun in their lives. The effect is fantastical and surreal, yet only through this effect does the exhibition become a space for reflection and dwelling. In fact, upon visiting this exhibition, you will more often than not see a great number of viewers lying down on the ground together, facing up towards the ceiling to see themselves in the exhibition. This makes the audience a notable component as they ultimately complete the exhibition’s purpose of portraying the sun and sky’s overarching power over human life.
Unlike many exhibitions from past to present, which only draw viewers into the aesthetic and observable qualities of the works, The Weather Project involves the audience in a real and dynamic way, directly engaging the viewer to establish its deeper meaning. The viewers complete the exhibition with their reactions to it:many of them are seen lying down on their backs, staring up at the ceiling and making different gestures or expressions to watch their reflections in the yellow, glowing hall. Their own reflection is coupled with the reflection of the sun which communicates their coexistence with its large and distant force. As seen in the pictures, Olafur Eliasson does not choose to document the exhibition on its own, like many other pieces of artwork, but instead includes the visitors in the shots, so that the presentation of the work involves and highlights the presence of the people within the glowing hall.
The image of people lying down is also a striking part of the exhibition because it displays the fascinating way in which they interact with it.The concept of encounter and bodily experience between the viewer and the exhibition is a vital part of Eliasson’s inspiration and purpose for the work. Oftentimes, our experience with an artistic work occurs slowly and peacefully, as we quietly focus on the visual elements of a work and internally develop our own ideas from it. In this sense, the experience of a work in an exhibition is quite constrained, limiting us solely to using visual tools (our eyes) to draw conclusions from the work. Eliasson, in contrast, does something different with The Weather Project: not only does he engage our visual senses, but he also engages the greater sense of feeling completely contained and overwhelmed by the power or meaning of the work and atmosphere. There is a physicality to both the atmosphere and the components of the exhibition, as well as an even greater presence in the gathering of people themselves.
King’s College Research Scholar Dirk von Lehn dives deeper into examining visitors’ conduct and interaction with each other and the art in museums, presenting his conclusions in his 2006 research paper “Embodying Experience.” Analyzing video-recordings of museum visitors, he explores how they orient themselves and examine others within the exhibition space. Essentially, Lehn explores different aspects of the embodied experience in an exhibition, revealing that “people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions fundamentally relies on their bodily being and acting in the world… bodily actions and embodied experience are inextricably intertwined.”1 At the same time, he places a great emphasis on how these visitors’ “verbal and bodily display of an experience of exhibits therefore does not reflect an internal, subjective experience but is produced in the light of the presence of others.”2 Here, Lehn is saying that the exhibition experience is both influenced by the works themselves and the people around. In the case of The Weather Project, the viewers’ decision to lie down on the ground facing towards the ceiling makes this particular action a standard way of experiencing the exhibition. This action was most likely brought about by a few visitors at the beginning, which then started this movement towards making it normal to lay on the ground. This component specifically reveals how different facets of experience are produced in and through social interactions in the exhibit space. The social environment of an exhibition shapes a viewer’s experience just as much as the artworks themselves: without the influence of others, a viewer may have never established the practice of lying on the ground as a way of interacting with the exhibition. In light of these observations, it is necessary to consider the change in museum culture as they move from a focus on objects towards visitors. The previously object-centered museum, whose primary concern was the collection and display of objects, has gradually transformed to a contemporary visitor-centered exhibition hall. This newly developed emphasis on the viewer means museums have expanded their efforts to engage visitors more directly and interactively, as seen clearly in The Weather Project.
The Weather Project is an installation art piece, an important form of art that, in more recent times, has made a deliberate shift away from traditional artistic concepts. The late 1980s ‘crash’ of the art market led to this reawakened interest in art focused on ideas rather than objects, otherwise known as conceptual art. Mixed media, light and sound have thus become fundamental to exploring concepts through installation art.Instead of involving the literal subject of the work, its medium, and its creator, the appreciation of installation art extends further to encompass this idea of bodily experience of the work. Installation art concentrates on producing an insightful, physical experience that stirs emotion and reflection for the viewer. Matthew Pelowski, a member of the Department of Psychological Research at the University of Vienna, researches and explores the installation art experience by investigating whether installation as a medium, which has become increasingly common yet complex, can produce meaningful emotional and semantic experiences. Pelowski presents his analysis of visitors’ interaction with two of Eliasson’s other works:
Such an “experience based” meaning, although of course not unique to installation examples, are an increasingly key aspect of contemporary conceptual and postmodern art, and in fact have been argued to represent a more general goal of art viewing or art education, representing a personalized, deepened art experience.3
Installation art is one of many art forms that involves the audience in a direct way, bringing them closer to the emotional and self-reflective content behind the work. Throughout his exploration of the visitors’ behavior with installation art in a museum, Pelowski questions, “whether viewers would appreciate the installed elements as stand-alone artworks or as components that interact with, and may play off of, the ambient environment.”4 His conclusion was rather expected: “Viewers did appear to specifically consider the interplay of these factors as part of their perceptual/emotional experience… lay viewers could indeed appreciate the often ambiguous or esoteric nature of the installations.”5 These takeaways strongly imply the hidden power of installation work in producing a more profound and raw experience for the viewer. In connection with this study, Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project is a perfect example of how installation art can create in-depth relationships between the viewer and the exhibition space, the exhibited art itself, and the other viewers in that space. Because installation art has to work with the space it is given, there is more emphasis placed on the viewer’s overall experience moving through the space, rather than just remaining still in front of a singular work. Installation art immediately allows viewers to slow down in their observations and engage with the entire space of the installation, thereby creating a more in-depth experience of the work. In speaking about the exhibition, Eliasson himself believes that the sense of collectivity and community amongst the viewers of this exhibition is a crucial part to their experience of looking and feeling. “It’s a great thing if you can somehow combine collectivity and singularity,” he says.
Although exhibited nearly twenty years ago, this unique exhibition remains relevant to today’s audience and will continue to remain relevant (or perhaps become even more important) for future generations. The relevance of this exhibition lies in its ties to the concept of climate change, which has become prevalent particularly in recent years as we have begun to see and experience its effects. Whether intentional or not, Eliasson addresses the issue of climate change in a rather abstract way in his installation. First, the close encounter that he creates between the individual and the sun in the sky highlights the relationship between humans and the natural forces of weather. The intense glow from the sun makes the individual feel overpowered, overwhelmed, and perhaps even makes them imagine feeling warm or heated. This type of interaction with the sun calls into question how we interact with the sun and its power. Furthermore, a less obvious reference to climate change exists in the area and appearance of the exhibition itself. The image of the exhibition in the structured, long hallway with the many individuals dotting the floor and upper levels creates the look of a factory or industrial space. The fact that this exhibition is located in a structured hall in London perhaps brings in a slight connection to the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution of Great Britain, which many think of as a major step in the journey of global climate change as it introduced modern ideals of technical progress and advancement that used nature as a resource. In the end, the choice of installation as the medium for this project was elemental to developing the underlying concepts and informing the bodily experience that makes the exhibition unique.
As we step into the vast expanse of Turbine Hall, we become one of many miniscule black silhouettes outlined against a continuous orange field of light that completely engulfs us. The surrounding mist and large hanging sphere provide us with a sunset-like experience as we lie down on the ground, looking up at our orange-tinted selves in the reflective ceiling. By confining the thorough majesty of the larger forces of the universe into this physical and raw experience, artist Olafur Eliasson creates a close encounter between us as individuals and the infinitely powerful and indescribable forces of nature, highlighting how important the solar system is to us as well as how insignificant we are in the scope of it all. Ultimately, The Weather Project pushes the audience to think about the natural world in relation to their own inner world whilst bringing in a new layer of installation and embodiment to the entire experience. In the end, Olafur Eliasson himself provides us questions to think about as we navigate this profoundly complex exhibition: “To what extent are you aware of the weather outside your workplace?” “Do you think tolerance to other individuals is proportional to the weather?” And finally, “Has a weather phenomenon ever changed the course of your life dramatically?”
- Dirk von Lehn,“Embodying Experience: A video-based examination of visitors’ conduct and interaction in museums,” European Journal of Marketing 40, no. 11/12 (2006): 15.
- von Lehn, “Embodying Experience,” 15.
- Matthew Pelowski, et. al., “Capturing Aesthetic Experiences With Installation Art: An Empirical Assessment of Emotion, Evaluations, and Mobile Eye Tracking in Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Baroque, Baroque!,’” Frontiers in Psychology 9, no. 1255 (2018): 3.
- Pelowski, “Capturing Aesthetic Experiences,” 19.
- Pelowski, “Capturing Aesthetic Experience,” 19.