Friendly Conversations About Art: Amber Thomson talks to me about Olafur Eliasson

Featured Image: Giorgio Boato, Danish Pavilion, 50th Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 2003. 04/05/20

In this series, I will be getting people to pick an artwork, tell me about it, and have a conversation. Through this series, I aim to make talking about art more fun, casual, and accessible to those without an arts background.

Amber Thomson (she/her) is a recent graduate from the University of Birmingham, with a BA History of Art (first class with hons). She will be commencing an MA in Arts and Project Management at the Birmingham School of Art in September. Her BA dissertation was about Olafur Eliasson’s Room for one colour, with the title ‘Rebellion and Experimentation: How Olafur Eliasson Challenges the White Cube’. She helped keep me sane during final year. 

Room For One Colour 1997 is an installation of yellow mono-frequency bulbs. This makes everything within the space appear on the yellow to black spectrum. 

Jennifer Wilbur: So, what have you chosen to talk to me about today?

Amber Thomson: Today I’m going to be talking to you about the installation piece Room For One Colour, which is by the Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

JW: Nice. So, you studied this work for your dissertation. What made you choose this?

AT:I wanted my dissertation to be about curating installation artworks. Olafur Eliasson is one of the most prominent figures in installation art at the moment. I was very lucky that he happened to have an exhibition at Tate Modern last summer, which allowed me to go and visit the works and experience them. Most installations are temporary, which means that my writing would be based on documentation, which is valid, but I felt that for my dissertation I should experience the piece as I was going to be writing about curation.

JW: Yeah, especially cause Eliasson is very much about the viewer interaction and participation in the works. To fully understand and talk about that you need to have experienced it first-hand. So what was your experience with the work, and the exhibition on the whole?

AT: I went into the exhibition not knowing which piece I was going to do. I had a look online at which ones would be there, I had rough ideas and kind of narrowed it down to about four. I think the reason Room For One Colour stood out for me so much is that it did take me by surprise. The majority of the exhibition is held within a White Cube exhibition space, as usual with Tate Modern. But this piece was just in the corridor outside the elevator entrances, and coming out of the elevators, it is a big surprise. You suddenly enter a mono-frequency space. When you step into it – which you have to do to get to the entrance of the exhibition – everything in your vision is within the yellow to black spectrum. You don’t necessarily realise it at first when you step into the space and then maybe you look at the person you’re with, and you’re like, Oh! It’s potentially very disconcerting at first, but it’s very playful as well. It was just very interesting to see people’s response to this space that they are thrust into without any prior warning. The exhibition had many other interesting installations, but I wanted to look at the curation of space. I thought that Room For One Colour would be most interesting to write about as the White Cube has been written about a lot. It would be more innovative and interesting to write about how an unusual space has been used.

Anders Sune Berg, Tate Modern London, 2019 04/05/20

JW: The way that it was presented at the Tate Modern differs from how it’s been presented in the past, wasn’t it?

AT: Usually it’s in a white room, which is what it was designed for, and in a way, it works better in a white room because you don’t have the disruption of surface and other colours. If it’s a White Cube space, it’s just bright yellow, it’s very visually obvious what’s going on. Whereas in the corridor, which is concrete, it’s less vibrant. The light was still effective on people, but as a whole space, it was less saturated. 

JW: I can imagine as well that the full immersion of the experience would have been very different. It seems like with the way it was installed that it became a different artwork to what it has been. Because I would think, usually, when it’s in the White Cube, that it’s quite a serene and peaceful atmosphere, fully immersive. Whereas in the corridor, you’ve got all the noises from the elevators. People have to use it to get from one place to another.

AT: For sure, the use of the corridor didn’t change, and you had people who would just completely walk through the piece without registering, or not wanting to register, that they were currently in an immersive installation. Also, there was the fact that there were large windows, there were other light sources. Noises that you wouldn’t get in the classic White Cube, where everything is very quiet and considered, and you’re very aware of yourself. But when you’re in this space that’s very bustled, it’s an unusual space for art, especially an installation piece. It did create new meanings for the piece. And the fact that it was still called Room For One Colour, but it was no longer in a room! That wasn’t really acknowledged by anyone. I found that very strange. He didn’t comment on it in his exhibition catalogue. I was suddenly like, is this even the same piece? I don’t know!

JW: Yeah, it’s not one room, and it’s no longer one colour, what’s going on there? It is interesting he did that. In a way, it feels maybe that he placed it there as a callback to his Turbine Hall commission in 2003 with the Weather Project, which again you touch on in your dissertation. It feels like a homage to that, and so maybe you’d expect it to be titled in relation to the Weather Project rather than being Room For One Colour.

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003, mono-frequency lights, projection foil, haze machines, mirror foil, aluminium, scaffolding, dimensions variable
Photo: Tate Photography (Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith), Tate Modern, London, 2003

AT: I think something to remember is that Room For One Colour was first created in 97. So I think Room For One Colour inspired the Weather Project, which is the piece that Eliasson is most well known for. And it’s really the reason for his connection with Tate Modern due to how successful the piece was. So I think that people wouldn’t have seen it as his earlier work, they would have seen it as a homage to the sun. I think that was potentially both confusing, as it wasn’t really addressed, but also purposeful, by having it in that similar concrete space as the Turbine Hall. It potentially reminded visitors, having to see this space before going into the exhibition, it’s a visual trigger. It’s uncertain who decided to place it in the corridor, but I know that Eliasson was in collaboration with the curators. It must have been a decision they made, and I’m sure it was in relation to the project, though no one mentioned this.

JW: That’s so bizarre that there was no mention of that. You mentioned that they had a live Q&A going on for the whole thing. It would be interesting to know if anyone was asked, is this related to the Weather Project? I was surprised when I read your dissertation that there was no mention of it because he’s quite open about his aims. He’s got those four key theoretical principles. His art is very purposeful, and he’s open to explaining that.

AT: It makes it all quite surreal. But Eliasson does have a slight contradictory element, where he has his four artistic principles which are based on how he intends people to experience a work, but then he does also leave a lot up to interpretation and first-hand experience. Which is why in the exhibition as a whole, not much information was provided, which was potentially a shame. I understand wanting to leave stuff up to interpretation, but the pieces were so impressive and so varied as it was a selection of works from throughout his career. You wouldn’t know that unless you read the brochures, which I know lots of visitors probably do not. You go into one room, and one of the walls was completely covered by moss. And it was very impressive. It was very tactile, and it created an earthy sense; obviously, this links to his past in Iceland, the kind of natural volcanic island, that atmosphere. But if you didn’t know where he came from, it is just a room with moss in it. So I felt the lack of information potentially is a difficult one with contemporary art.

JW: One of the things that I’ve always liked about the Tate Modern is that, for most of their exhibitions, they’re so good at providing loads of information. Every single work will have a write up next to it. Whenever you go into a new room, they have large panels of text on the wall. Everyone is stood around them and reading them, so it does seem a bit of a divergence for them to have very little information. But I wonder if that was maybe Eliasson’s aim with making it more interactive and that’s why he did the Q&A. Maybe he was hoping that people would ask, but it’s hard to put that expectation on the viewers and the audience.

AT: Potentially he was using Tate Modern as a new way of trying to do things, because I know, in previous exhibitions, he has had information on the walls, but here he did not. It was evidently an artistic decision. Moving it onto a virtual platform with the Twitter Q&A’s from his studio, which were put on a TV screen that rotated. He’s seeing an exploration of what the future of curating might be. Eliasson is very very interested in curation as a topic, he’s written essays on museums, he often titles them the ‘Radical Museum’, and varieties on that theme. So, potentially it was a point of exploration, and if that was the case, you can’t really fault it as it’s always valid to see where curation is gonna go next.

JW: Definitely. It’s interesting that he used Twitter as a platform, he’s actively engaging in social media. I feel like the role of social media is changing the way that people view and experience art. He’s very much one of those artists who is very ‘Instagrammable’. But moving Room For One Colour, putting it in the corridor, potentially removed some of the ‘Instagramability’ of it.

AT: It was one of the less favourable pieces from the exhibition. The most popular in relation to Instagram, the ones I saw photographed most in newspapers, etc. were the fog tunnel, which was an immersive corridor full of fog; Beauty, which is a rainbow created from sprinkling water; a piece where there were light-boxes at the back of the room, and they projected light forward so when you walked in your shadows would cast off on the walls in different colours –

JW: I saw that one everywhere.

AT: It was huge! It was the one they used for the poster for the exhibition. Beauty‘s in a black cube space, but most of them were in White Cube spaces. The White Cube is more photographic for many reasons. Eliasson is going to be aware of his ‘Instagramability’, and it is a point of criticism about his work, that potentially his work is just visually pleasing. But you can’t really deny the role of social media and visually pleasing works. Visually pleasing works can have many other meanings and still be very impressive and insightful and interesting and academic, but it doesn’t change the fact that people are going to want to take pictures of them to go on their Instagram feed.

Olafur Eliasson Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection, Vienna. Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa / Studio Olafur Eliasson © 2010 Olafur Eliasson

JW: It’s so important for artists to get those ‘grams’ in order to get their names out. You want people to want to take pictures of your work and share them and post them around.

AT: This was particularly interesting, as in the ‘In Real Life’ exhibition at Tate Modern, taking pictures was allowed throughout the exhibition, which is very unusual – I have hardly been to any paid exhibitions where you’re allowed to take photos of every piece. It just created a much more welcoming, accepting environment. It reflected the needs of a current society that is coming to visit this exhibition. Which I think potentially was why it was so successful, one of the reasons anyway. And it shows how Tate Modern is continuing to engage and to keep itself modern and contemporary with the needs of its public.

JW: Definitely, I feel like Tate’s doing a really good job of leading the way with staying up to date with the times. They’re recognising what people are wanting from art and how to get people engaged. There’s a reason why it’s London’s most visited free attraction. They know how to get people in, they’ve utilised social media really well with stuff like that. I wondered if we could talk a bit about the White Cube and what that means for display. If you feel particularly positive or negative about it?

AT: So, my dissertation took a fairly negative approach to the White Cube. The White Cube has been around for a very long time. Back in the 40s and 50s is when it first started occurring on a more regular scale. By the 70s, it seemed like the perfect space to exhibit more abstract or minimalist pieces. Now, if you were faced with something like a Jackson Pollock, it works perfectly in a White Cube, because the focus is on the colour and the technique. You don’t want any other distractions. Those artists did not want exterior contexts coming into their work, so a White Cube space was ideal.

But I would say the majority of current artists are going to have contexts of some kind, whether it’s biographical, social, or political being an influence. By placing them in a White Cube space, with often limited information, in a room that many people feel uncomfortable in, it’s not a constructive space for art in this current climate. But galleries haven’t seemed to be able to move beyond it as a platform, as an exhibiting space. There are reasons for that; it’s very easy to maintain, it’s often good for viewing as it’s focused on light, serenity and clear backgrounds. But, it creates quite a hostile space. Brian O’Deherty explains that you often feel like your body shouldn’t be in the space, you are intruding on the space, this space which is just for art in an almost religious way, like a temple, and you’re in that. Especially if you don’t really have prior knowledge, being within those spaces can be quite unpleasant sometimes. I’ve felt that in some spaces. If it’s an artist I don’t particularly know, I feel out of place in those White Cube spaces, they can be hostile. Galleries need to continue to explore different possibilities, and I feel like most of them do not do that. They’ve become comfortable in the White Cube and aren’t really willing to look at the negative characteristics that it creates.

JW: Yeah, I think for a lot of people who aren’t in the art world, art seems intimidating, and galleries are intimidating with how white they are. It’s so static, but it needs to be a space that people feel they can move freely in and interact with works, and the White Cube isn’t the best space for that. I remember when I first went to the Ikon in Birmingham, which is a great gallery, but there’s no information anywhere, it’s very White Cube type. I didn’t realise that they had information leaflets, and I went in and was like, I have no idea what’s going on here! And I couldn’t engage, and I felt intimidated. The best exhibition that I’ve seen there was ‘At Home With Vanley Burke’, where they basically moved his entire house into the gallery. It was no longer a White Cube space then, or at least it was an installation within it that worked really well. And the best exhibitions that I’ve seen in White Cube spaces are ones that no longer keep it as a White Cube space

AT: Disrupt the White Cube! Precisely, I agree. In a way, Room For One Colour does that when in the White Cube space, because it transforms the whole room, it’s suddenly a yellow cube. So that in itself was quite new and innovative in the 90s and the early 2000s when it was first exhibited. I think just by moving it outside of the White Cube was continuing the innovation, which is quite unusual for artworks. Once they’ve been created, they don’t often change the way that they use space, which is why exhibitions that create new ways of seeing a piece are always the most interesting. You’re suddenly presented with something in a different light, in a different space, in a different environment. It creates a whole new reading. An exhibition that did this most vividly for me was the Alexander Calder exhibition at the Musée Picasso in Paris. Having these abstract mobiles, which I usually always see in a White Cube or a glass space, put within very intricate Baroque architecture was so interesting! It was kind of incredible, I just had never processed that way of seeing something before, and I loved it! Having them at the top of the grand staircase, like a chandelier, but in bright graphic shapes, stood out against the more decorative architecture. It showed that you don’t need to have this kind of removed lifeless space to experience them.

JW: That’s a really good example. A lot of galleries think that modern work needs modern space, but actually, they worked so well in a building that was not modern. I don’t think I’d properly seen Calder’s work before, but experiencing like it like that drew me into it, more than if it was just in a static place, because they are fun, and they are playful.

AT: It’s more engaging, and it is something that I had not considered. It’s not the obvious way to engage with a mobile like that. So I thought the curators did an amazing job with that one.

Alexander Calder at the Musée Picasso, Paris 2019. Own image.

JW: Was there anything else that stood out for you with the ‘In Real Life’ exhibition?

AT: So I think something that has both positives and negatives is the fact that it was the summer blockbuster exhibition for the Tate. Blockbuster exhibitions can be considered quite critically by the more academic art world, but there are obviously huge positives to them. They bring famous international artists to London, to a huge audience who otherwise might not be able to see them. Most of Eliasson’s works are not permanently on display anywhere, so it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of those works. Some of them he created just for the exhibition, they were designed for the location, so they might not be displayed again. Having a blockbuster exhibition, obviously, is designed by the more capitalist side as it’s a huge moneymaker. The Tate know that Eliasson’s works are very engaging, they’re very accessible. I feel like this is the case with a lot of contemporary installation art that you can interact with. They are creating a space which is very welcoming and accessible for a variety of people.

Another interesting thing was the small booklet that came with the exhibition. It opened up into a big map with a recommended route. I haven’t been to many exhibitions that do that. It made sense with the room layouts, and having prior knowledge, it also indicated that you’d go through his works fairly chronologically. I could see people potentially would criticise that because you’re not really leaving it up to the viewer and it wasn’t really explained why you should do this route, but everyone did as far as I’m aware because if people are told a way to go, they will go that way.

JW: It seems that with the exhibition, and because he is such an immersive artist, he specifically wanted to craft a journey, an experience that would be the same for everyone. He wanted you to experience this work, and then you move on and experience the next work. And having Room For One Colour be the introduction to it, it’s very purposeful. You have that, and then you immediately move into a very specifically curated, choreographed space. It’s a carefully crafted journey for everybody.

AT: Yeah, that’s potentially why Room For One Colour threw quite a few people off because you don’t know how to navigate that space, it’s not prescribed to you in advance, and you’re not aware that it’s coming up. There’s one thing I actually didn’t cover in my dissertation because it potentially went against some of the arguments that I was making. So, I thought it was very innovative and explorative that Eliasson placed Room For One Colour in the corridor space, as it creates new experiences and readings. The exhibition is currently in Bilbao in Spain, and it’s back in a really large White Cube room. At first, I saw it as quite a step back for Eliasson, I was like, Oh, you made this decision to move out of the White Cube, and I know you’re aware of the issues of these kinds of spaces, and now you’ve gone back on that. But I think, without the stress of writing my dissertation, I can understand why he did it. White Cube is going to prevail for quite a long time. And I’m sure he probably will continue to be explorative, and use new spaces. But the essence of the piece is that it should be in a room and create a yellow room. I feel like if he continues to show it in non-White Cube spaces, it would no longer continue to be the piece that he created in 97. So Tate Modern allowed him this unique opportunity to see what it would be like in a concrete corridor, and I guess it kind of fulfilled his need for that, which is okay. 

JW: I agree it’s quite good, maybe, that he then took it back to the White Cube. It needed that.

AT: So I think it’s an odd one because you want these unusual spaces to be used, to create new readings, but if that was a painting or a sculpture, it’s not ever going to change what the essence of the piece is. Which I think is an issue that’s really just for installation art. With a medium such as light, you do have to question whether unusual space is always the right way to go. Installation art has always been quite a difficult one, and curators are always going to struggle with it and use it for new opportunities. But it’s difficult for consistency. And I feel like it depends on whether the artist or institute really embraces the temporary nature of installation as well.

JW: I think that’s one great thing about Eliasson is that he takes note of the space that he’s in. Which a lot of artists don’t necessarily do, or they don’t necessarily have the relationship with the curators to be able to play with the space in such a unique and purposeful and specialised way.

AT: That is true. I feel like the Eliasson and Tate Modern relationship is potentially quite unique. Also, a lot of their blockbuster exhibitions do tend to be by artists who are no longer alive. It does leave all the curatorial decisions up to the curatorial team, whereas I think with Eliasson and the ‘In Real Life’ exhibition, it was a collaborative effort. Which is quite positive, especially for contemporary artists to be in close collaboration with the curators, it creates these new and unique visual opportunities which I think galleries definitely need in order to move forward and remain relevant for both contemporary artists and the current public. 

Thanks Amber for having this chat with me! Your dissertation was so insightful and I enjoyed being able to rant about the White Cube with you. 

Amber’s LinkedIn

Amber and me at the 2019 UoB History of Art Society Winter Formal that we organised.

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