Olafur Eliasson’s “Riverbed” Converts a Museum into a Natural Landscape
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, known for his large-scale installations employing elemental materials like light, water, earth, and even atmosphere, transformed an entire wing of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art into a riverbed for his first solo exhibition. The work, which uses rocks, soil, and running water to precisely emulate a natural landscape, stands in stark contrast to the white walls of one of Denmark’s most important Modernist buildings. Originally designed in 1958 by architects Jørgen Bo and Wilhlem Wohlert, the Louisiana’s staggered, irregularly sized portals create an experience that highlights movement through space. By filling the Louisiana with a landscape its galleries might have replaced, Eliasson heightens the haptic qualities of this experience and points to the reality of the museum as an institution and a physical locality. The work raises the question of how natural and built environments might intersect, though it is up to the viewer to decide whether this tension is constructive or destructive.
Olafur Eliasson is an artist who creates pieces which “make the concerns of art relevant to society at large”, but upon further interpretation of some of his works, specifically “Ice Watch” (2014) and “Riverbed” (2014), perhaps what the artist is doing is making the concerns of our societies and our impact on the Earth transparent through his work, and thus presenting these concerns back to us through art.
In “Ice Watch” twelve blocks of ice from Greenland were placed in the square in front of City Hall in Copenhagen. This ‘ice clock’ would start to melt and over the three days it was displayed, people would interact with it, unintentionally causing further destruction. The artist calls this piece a “physical wake-up call” – climate change is happening, there is no denying, and these melting blocks are merely the tip of the iceberg of what is happen with increased environmental destruction.
Similarly, “Riverbed” also works with human interaction. Audiences are invited to walk on the art, as it is a gallery space filled with earth and rocks, with a small stream flowing through the space. As audiences walk on the work, bits of rock tend to roll and fall into the stream. Someone could even place a larger rock in the stream to completely obstruct the flow of water. Just by being in the space, we already begin to damage it.
The artist “reverses the relation between nature and art” but also forced us to realise one thing. Unlike conventional artworks in a gallery, ones that we dare not touch, we cannot control out interaction with our environments. “Riverbed” especially forces audiences to step on, damage and sometimes destroy parts of the piece, whether we intended to or not. Just how every action we make outside the gallery space, can either directly or indirectly have a profound effect on our environment.