A diverse and inclusive art world in the making
by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Daria KravchukPublished on : Apr 21, 2023
The works of the artist Olafur Eliasson explore the relevance of art in the world at large. Since 1997, his wide-ranging solo shows—featuring installations, paintings, sculptures, photography, and film—have appeared in major museums around the globe including Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, Kunsthaus Zürich, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and many more.
In March 2023, Eliasson’s first solo exhibition, The Curious Desert, opened in Qatar. It brought together a dozen site-specific desert installations at Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve and an extensive gallery presentation of artworks at the National Museum of Qatar.
The exhibition, which is open till August 15, 2023, includes new site-specific works that continue to explore the Icelandic-Danish artist’s abiding interests in light and colour, geometric studies, ecological awareness and more-than-human relationships. The project is presented as part of Qatar Creates, the year-round national cultural movement that curates, promotes, and celebrates the diversity of cultural activities in Qatar.
Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums, also remarked on the exhibition, “The Curious Desert by Olafur Eliasson illustrates the power and problem-solving ability of art. Olafur’s profound body of work, including the new installations in the Qatari desert, opens an important dialogue about the environment, one of the most pressing topics of our time, in the context of our nation’s natural landscapes. This exhibition is unique in its presentation, which exists both inside and outside of the National Museum of Qatar, to further demonstrate how art is not confined to galleries, but is around us, everywhere, to inspire and educate.”
Located in a sabkha habitat, some 64 kilometres northeast of Doha, near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve, 12 temporary pavilions enclose a series of new, experimental artworks that respond to the ephemeral natural phenomena of the local environment, such as sunlight, wind and water. The first three outdoor pavilions explore optical phenomena, making use of rainbows, shadows and mirrors to create mesmerising effects, while pavilions five through seven contain innovative drawing machines that enlist the elements of the sabkha habitat to create artworks that will later be displayed within the exhibition at the National Museum of Qatar. The final three pavilions bring this environment into dialogue with others, with materials such as obsidian and glacial mud from Iceland. Inside the National Museum of Qatar, an extensive presentation of works from throughout the installation artist’s career invites viewers to situate themselves anew in relation to expansive light installations, photo series from Iceland, complex geometric studies, watercolours, optical devices, and a sprawling research map.
It’s important to point out that the full carbon emissions report for exhibition The Curious Desert by Eliasson will be available after the exhibition closes. Final results and offsetting partners will be published on Studio Olafur Eliasson website and the NMoQ website.
STIR speaks with Olafur Eliasson about the idea behind the project, context as a tool, the role of an artist in the present day society and how we could all try to decrease the carbon footprint.
Daria Kravchuk: What stands behind the title The Curious Desert?
Olafur Eliasson: Proposing the idea that a desert can be curious is almost like trying to turn the notion of desert from a noun into a verb. It’s about applying activity to the desert, suggesting that it can be curious. It’s curious about who you are, why you are there, what is going on. It is said that what we call “more than human” also has agency. Trees are actually treeing, a desert is deserting. And behind that there is an idea of slowing down, of sensitivity towards nature, ecology, environment. Human exceptionalism places us so high above the desert that we make a mistake and say that the desert is barren land, but this is only because it has not yet been commodified, not yet turned into real estate. It does not take into consideration that the desert is an environment, a highly fragile world. It’s alive. It has inhabitants: insects, animal life, and plant life. So, the curious desert, in that sense, is a way of saying that it's an interesting desert. I even like to go further and say that it has personality. You can grant it a level of personhood. You can grant it the rights of personhood in order to protect it or allow it to protect itself.
Daria: The context in which the artworks are being displayed is a very strong tool in itself. How do you work with context? Which additional meaning does it carry for you?
Olafur: The exhibition—in the desert as well as in the National Museum of Qatar—is sensitive to the local conditions. A desert has highly different landscapes in it. This part, near Al Thakhira Mangrove Forest, is not a typical desert. It's called a sabkha—a low plain covered in salt and other mineral deposits left over from evaporated sea water. It is where the so-called mangroves are—there's a forest of trees standing in the ocean. Up and down the east coast of Africa there's a number of mangrove forests. When a tree is standing in the sea, it drinks saltwater, as much as one might think that's not possible. But in some cases, the salt from the water crystallises on the leaves. I was fascinated by this idea that you see a forest standing in the sea with crystals on the leaves. Nature is unbelievably spectacular. We consulted with the ecologist Dr. Aspa D. Chatziefthimiou, and moved the site according to her recommendations, because of animal life and plant life on the site. The conversation with her increased our sensitivity.
It’s also sometimes about the gut feeling and a sense of place, space and time. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
Daria: In today’s artistic community, a variety of roles are being reshaped and repeatedly re-lived. Artist being a researcher, a storyteller, is continuously expanding his/her role. It has a lot to do with evolving and taking over a role of creator of new narratives and grantor of accessibility. Which mission do you envision for yourself and your practice?
Olafur: Yes, all of that. I feel very fortunate to be an artist in today's world. I am old enough to remember a time when artists were more marginalised. In terms of the role of art, I have always been a fan of supporting democratisation of accessibility to art. I have been very interested in talking about art in ways that make it understandable. But I have probably sometimes made it even harder. For me a great exhibition, a great art museum, is one that hosts people who don’t feel welcome, who are there for the first time and say, “This is not for me, I don't have the right capacity or skills to understand what's going on here. I feel alienated. This is elitist.” My role in this is to be the best version of myself. I take this seriously and try to be accountable. Being honest and humble is already a good start. Making art is not about giving answers and claiming to know where we are going, but it is about walking. I do not claim to know exactly what the goal is, but at least I am trying to move in a certain direction. Making art is like moving.
Daria: As you were mentioning, there will be a carbon emissions report available after the closing of the exhibition. Could you share how in general art practitioners could try to decrease the carbon footprint—not some sort of guidelines, but the basic things to pay attention to, which can be easily executed?
Olafur: A very easy thing to start with is to look down, at the world directly around you. Achievements come from focusing on what's happening underneath your feet—right here and right now. Everyone in the world stands at a certain spot. If everyone just took care of that spot to the best of their skills, being the best version of themselves, we would achieve a lot already. If people start by being honest with themselves, they will typically evolve a sense of community and a sense of responsibility. The biggest threat is indifference.
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