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Olafur Eliasson and His 'Taoism': a dialogue that crosses space and time

By Luo Sicheng (People's Daily Online)    09:03, August 02, 2018

On the night of July 23rd, a marvelous interactive dancing show “The Indispensable Forms and Shadows” performed by Beijing Modern Dance Company was presented at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing. This show is a combination or interaction of modern dance and installation artworks belonged to Olafur Eliasson’s individual exhibition “The unspeakable openness of things”, which is currently going on at the art museum. Many artists, including actresses, singers and directors were invited and witnessed the charm of this dancing show.

Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967. Denmark) is a visual artist who works in a wide range of media, including installation, painting, sculpture, photography, and film. Since 1997, his critically acclaimed solo shows have appeared in major museums around the world. His projects in public space include The New York City Waterfalls, 2008 and Ice Watch, shown in Copenhagen in 2014 and Paris in 2015. Since 2012, Eliasson has directed the social business Little Sun, and in 2014, Eliasson and long-term collaborator Sebastian Behmann founded the international office for art and architecture Studio Other Spaces. Allof these artworks mentioned address important ecological issues happening around the world, just like Yan Shijie, the curator of this exhibition observes, “Like the leader of a think-tank, Eliasson uses art to protect, vocalize, and inspire consensus and action from the perspective of climate and civilization”.

As an artist growing up in northern Europe, Eliasson has an extremely close relationship with nature. He, especially during his childhood, saw a lot of stars, wind, aurora, polar nights and so on. Therefore, according to Yan, Eliasson has “world view”, or wide world perception. He is relatively less concerned about individual issues; he always observes, thinks and creates, through a very abstract and macro perspective, dealing with big issues like ecology, the world, the universe and human beings. His artworks precisely reflect this characteristic. He converts his experience with nature into his artworks; he is very good at re-present or re-create nature and the universe through his art, enabling his audience to feel and interact with the world in an unusual, brand new, and Eliasson-styled way. The first piece of artwork that shares the same name with the exhibition “the unspeakable openness of things” is a great example. He established a sun-like illuminant in a room in which the ceiling is a giant mirror. Audience can lie on the floor and look at their reflections on the ceiling, or the mirror. In this space, people, the sun and shadows/reflections face each other, which is impossible in the outside world. Staring at the reflections, audience have no idea whether they are floating in the air or lying on the floor and all the colors disappear except yellow and blue due to the light of the illuminant. Gravity, visual perception of color and other natural or scientific rules that belonged to our common sense are no longer valid in this room. These phenomena are not “natural”; they only exist in this unique nature created by Eliasson.

Anotheroeuvre of Eliasson’s called Ice Watch also indicates how he enables people to experience nature in a brand-new way using his artwork. Eliasson and his team transported twelve large blocks of ice cast off from the Greenland ice sheet and presented them in a clock formation in a prominent public place. People touched them, felt them and some leaned their heads on the ice and some kids even licked them with eyes full of wonder and curiosity. Making people see these arctic ices (which are unmeltable in our impressions) shrink and disappear with their own eyes, and hear the sound of drippling water, Eliasson helps to raise awareness of climate change by providing a direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting arctic ice. It is therefore obvious to see that Eliasson is good at making his audience interact with lights, shadows, rain drops and other natural substances more intimately, that are sometimes too common for us to pay enough attention to or are seemingly uninfluenced by our day to day activities; thus, people may realize the intimate relationship between man and nature, and also that daily activities of each individual is influential to ecological system. By this means, Eliasson appeal to people to raise awareness and act to protect nature and the universe. 

We can see that Eliasson is an artist who has profound understandings about the relationship between man and nature. Interestingly, “man and nature” is a long existed and much discussed topic in Chinese philosophy, especially in Taoism. As a western artist, Eliasson and his oeuvres and artistic ideas are magically very related to Taoism. For example, the name of this individual exhibition “the unspeakable openness of things”, and also the name of another oeuvre “map for unthought thoughts”, are miraculously in harmony with conceptions in Taoism like “The great note has no voice; The great symbol has no shape”. Moreover, according to Yan Shijie, Eliasson is a person who “may have one hundred ideas for a piece of work, and then delete them one by one. In the end, there may be only one pure essence left”. This habit of simplifying complications is also very Taoist. Also, there are many paradoxes gathering in Eliasson; while paradoxes themselves are parallel with the conception of “yin and yang”, and perfectly aligning with the idea in Taoism that nothing is absolute, and nothing is exactly what it looks like, “bright Way looks obscure;great purity looks filthy”.

An instance of his paradox can be interpreted by Eliasson’s painting “Glacial Landscape”. This group of watercolors was produced using chunks of ancient glacial ice that were fished from the sea off the coast of Greenland. The ice was placed atop thin washes of color on a sheet of thick paper. As the ice gradually melted, the resulting water displaced the pigment, producing organic swells and fades of color. Employing chance and natural processes, these watercolors are experiments that attempt to utilize the spontaneous behavior of natural phenomena as active co-producers of the artwork. During the interview, Yan commented that this oeuvre is an opposition as well as a combination of beauty and death. These melting ices symbolizes the melting of glacial ice, thus the deterioration of ecological system and eventually leading to death. However, this death and sadness creates stunning beauty. Symbol of death (melted ice) gives birth to art and visual enjoyment.

However, there is one outstanding difference between Eliasson and Taoism. One major argumentof Taoism is to advocate “inaction” or “actionlessness”, which means letting things take their own courses without any interference. On the opposite, Eliason, as an artist as well as an active environmental protectionist, who participated in many UN activities, strives for protections and actions aimed at ecological issues. He calls for actions, is thus opposite to the Taoist concept of “inaction”. But actually, all the actions and movements that Eliasson has done is to improve the environment and try to return it to its original, undamaged, intact conditions do not require people’s intentional protections anymore. Therefore, all of Eliasson’s actions are, paradoxically, to achieve the state of “inaction”. This is another paradox of Eliasson. Therefore, from this perspective, Eliasson again aligns with Taoism, looking forward to a world that everything is on its right track and man and nature live in harmonious coexistence, requiring no more interferences--- a word of “inaction”. It is always affecting to see that Eliasson and Taoism, who are difficult to imagine to have any connections, share a dialogue which cross the space of thousands of years and miles.  

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(Web editor: Liang Jun, Bianji)

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