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Olafur Eliasson's Artistic Practice in Qatar

Updated: 29 October 2023

Interview by Loubna Zeidan

With a temporary exhibition drawing record crowds and a new permanent public artwork that’s become an instant landmark, Olafur Eliasson is using his platform to engage audiences and to spark responses on the reality of the climate crisis.

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On view until 15 August, the exhibition Olafur Eliasson: The curious desert unfolds across two locations: an indoor display at the National Museum of Qatar and an outdoor installation near Al Thakira Mangrove Nature Preserve. The two complementary presentations invite visitors to see the process behind the works, and to reflect, question and actively participate in shaping their own surroundings.

In addition to the temporary exhibition, Eliasson also recently installed Shadows travelling on the sea of the day, a permanent public artwork in the desert just north of Al Zubarah that engages visitors with the movement of the Earth via subtle shifts of light that occur throughout the day.

In this interview, the artist discusses his vision, process and the challenges and opportunities of mounting large-scale outdoor exhibitions in Qatar’s unique environment.

Q. Can you give us some background about your approach to creating site-specific outdoor installations in general, and how you have incorporated the unique features of Qatar's desert environment in particular?

Eliasson: As a child, I was fortunate enough to spend my summer holidays exploring Iceland’s varied landscapes. These formative experiences led me to understand that while these environments initially appear barren, they are actually full of life and are themselves intricate ecosystems. This experience inspired me to understand our relationships with landscape and nature in a different way. To better understand the flow of water in a river, for example, I tried to run at the same speed as the water so that the river looked as though it was standing still and the landscape was moving. While hiking through the landscape, I tried calibrating distance by observing how fast the water fell over waterfalls.

For The curious desert, I was inspired by the prospect of creating artworks that are not simply placed in a natural landscape – in this case, the stunning sabkha [coastal desert salt flat] and the nearby mangrove forest – but instead respond to and interact with the specificities and unique elements of the location, the ephemeral natural phenomena there, such as the wind and the path of the sun. For me, this relationship and interaction is what creates the art.

Taking the exhibition into the desert and engaging with this landscape through the artworks is a special opportunity to broaden art’s potential for interacting with and making the world.

Olafur Eliasson

I also created drawing machines in the desert that are like chronicles of the weather in the mangrove region – weather reports, if you like. The drawing machines use the intense light of the Sun amplified by glass spheres and the motion of the wind in relation to levers to make marks on circular pieces of paper and canvas. You might say that they quite literally, although in a different, artistic way, use two of the most important alternative, renewable energy sources for building a carbon-free future: wind and solar.

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Saltwater-drawing observatory, 2023. Galvanized steel, textile, solar lamp, solar panel, batteries, stainless steel, aluminium, paint (anthracite), motor, plastic, wood, canvases (black, white), pigmented saltwater (white and black acrylic ink). Olafur Eliasson: The curious desert, near the Al Thakhira Mangrove, 2023 Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

The way I’ve chosen to present these works – updating the presentation in the museum periodically as the new paintings are created – makes the process of the artworks and the exhibition visible to the visitors. This was an essential part of the show’s concept: By showing the process behind the works, I try to hand over the authority of deciding what is important in these encounters to the visitors.

Shadows travelling on the sea of the day, located north of the heritage site Al Zubarah in Qatar, reflects my fascination for scale and time within the desert landscape. The elevated circular mirrors cast our gazes back down to Earth, to the desert ground beneath our feet, and they simultaneously make visible the Earth's motion in relation to the sun through the movement of the shadows over the course of each day.

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The permanent public art installation Shadows travelling on the sea of the day brings to life the motion of the Earth around the sun, offering a captivating reflection of nature's rhythms. Photo: Iwan Baan, courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

Q. What are some of the challenges in bringing projects like these to life?

Eliasson: Today, when I plan an exhibition, commission or larger artwork, it is my responsibility to reflect on the environmental impacts of my activity with humility and accountability. You could call this a challenge, but in my opinion, it is certainly worth taking. Throughout the development of The curious desert, I saw Qatar as a country with the resources and influence necessary to play a leading role in shaping climate action in the region. I wanted to ensure that my exhibition reflected that aspiration.

For the outdoor portion of the exhibition, we took special measures to understand and protect the site’s ecosystems. Working with ecologist Dr. Aspa D. Chatziefthimiou, we changed the location of the site to minimise damage to biodiversity and are in the process of formulating a remediation plan to improve the site after the exhibition closes.

My studio and I are also involved in analysing the more granular details around the logistics of holding an exhibition, working on this mundane level to become more sustainable. Since 2020, my studio has committed to finding sustainable solutions across all stages of artmaking and studio operations, including improving waste management, reducing travel, and opting for sustainable material choices for artwork production. We track the carbon footprint of all exhibitions and work with local fabricators wherever possible to keep the carbon emissions down. For The curious desert, we sent the majority of artworks to Qatar by truck from Berlin instead of via airfreight. (Sea freight was ruled out as an option, as it pollutes the ocean).

Q. What role do you think art plays in raising awareness about environmental issues, particularly in Qatar's desert landscape?

Eliasson: Art is one of many routes for addressing the climate crisis, but I believe it offers us something more than simply ‘raising awareness’ for a cause. It is a unique language that can communicate a plethora of meanings. We humans interpret new information through the lens of our past experiences and embodied knowledge, as well as intellectually, through what we have learned via cultural transmission. I’m particularly interested in those liminal artistic experiences at the edge of language when we look at an artwork, and the experience triggers some not-yet verbalised emotion. In this sense, we might feel that the artwork is listening to us, and we are to it.

The question is not whether or not we take action; the question is where are we going? And do we have the courage to be accountable for our own steps?

Olafur Eliasson

A number of the temporary pavilions at Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve house works that reflect the massive forces shaping our planet: volcanism, the disappearance of the glaciers and the petroleum pollution resulting from human extraction of fossil fuels. These works – Your obsidian garden, Your glacial-dust garden, and Your oil-spill garden – collect silent clusters of materials related to these massive forces that nevertheless have much to say.

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Capturing the essence of our changing planet, the outdoor pavilions of The curious desert stand as testaments to the powerful forces shaping our world. Among them is Your glacial-dust garden. Photo: Amelia Pallett. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

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Your obsidian garden reflects the intricate interplay between humanity and nature. Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

Many of my artworks, such as The glacier melt series 1999/2019, address ecological awareness conceptually. For that work, I went back to photograph the same glaciers in Iceland that I had documented twenty years ago, and the difference in the size of the glaciers is shocking!

A gallery space showcasing a selection of landscape photography between two walls.

In The glacier melt series (1999/2019), Eliasson documents visible changes that have taken place in Iceland in just twenty years. Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Art can help us cope with situations of emotional stress, of feeling lost, by reflecting on these feelings, hosting them, and working through them with us. This can be concerning the climate emergency facing the world or almost any other situation we find ourselves in.

Q. The curious desert features several interactive installations that require the audience to participate actively. How important is audience engagement in your work?

Eliasson: I am interested in how we perceive the world and our surroundings through movement and active engagement. For this reason, several of my artworks require movement for you to understand them; for The living lighthouse, installed inside the National Museum of Qatar, visitors’ silhouettes dance among the waves of light and colour, causing new shades and forms to cascade about the room. The moving bands of light incorporate the walls and the surrounding space into the artwork, transforming the exhibition gallery from a container for art into an object of attention.⁠

A room with rainbow coloured colour blocking effects surrounding the walls of the gallery space.

The living lighthouse integrates visitors’ silhouettes with waves of light and colour. Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Many have suggested that the world's action could be turned into a verb – worlding. I am worlding my way through the day: experiencing, presenting, interpreting. In that sense, everything we do is an action. Doing nothing is an action too, which significantly impacts our surroundings. The question is not whether or not we take action; the question is where are we going? And do we have the courage to be accountable for our own steps?

Q. The wall of research materials that you’ve included in the exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into your creative process and your diverse projects. How does it connect to the work itself?

Eliasson: The Research map is as much an amazing portrait of the studio mind as it reflects my interests. It presents much of the diverse thinking going on, particularly in the research department of my studio. It relates to the ideas behind my artworks, sometimes directly and sometimes more abstractly. I started the Research map with my team a few years ago to pull together our various points of interest and research after years of informally using pinboards in the studio to create conceptual mind maps and engage in brainstorming. Over time, it has become an alternative space for micro-storytelling, where seemingly unrelated contents vibrate next to each other and create new meanings. The map is something that is constantly in development. It does not have a beginning or end nor demand you read it all. The viewer's potential lies in losing, exploring, and discovering unexpected ideas and thoughts.

Research Map Sources

Q. What do you hope visitors take away from their experience at the exhibition?

Eliasson: I hope that the exhibition allows visitors to use their full sensorium to collect knowledge, engage in critical reflection and construct new ideas for the stories we live in each day. I find it exciting to have created an exhibition that spans these two natural, cultural sites – the museum, inspired as it was by the desert rose, and the sabkha outdoor site near Al Thakhira. The artworks that inhabit them are an assembly of embodied thoughts and actions, each entangled with the presence of their fellow artworks. One thing that has long been critical to me is expanding where and how we encounter art. I hope the exhibition might lead visitors to see these sites anew and feel empowered by this experience to co-create their surroundings at whatever scale they can imagine.

Loubna Zeidan is a Senior Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.