The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson
As there is a Tube strike in London at the moment, I walked along the canal to the studio yesterday. I love London when there is a transport strike on. People move overground, make eye contact, smile at each other and even make random conversations. It’s one thing that we Londoners are good at: sharing the misery with a smile.
I was stopped twice on my 2 hour walk by randoms. Both times, the stranger initiated the conversation by talking about the weather. This made me think about the role the weather plays in the British versus the Scandinavian societies. As a kid, I was taught by my English teacher that “the Brits like to talk about the weather more than anything else”. I never really believed him. I mean, he also tried to convince us that people in London say “Oh dear, it is raining cats and dogs”…. However, when I moved here about 15 years ago, I quickly realised that my teacher was right. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson put it perfectly when he remarked “It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm”. The subject of the weather really does shape the beginning of a lot of conversations over here and I have grown very fond of this fact.
Whilst the weather does not generally play a big part of everyday conversations in Scandinavia, it does, however, have a central role in the arts. This is probably best illustrated by artists like the Impressionists and the Skagen painters who used the special light on the west coast of Denmark to paint beautiful beach based paintings. In more recent times, the Icelandic/Danish artists Olafur Eliasson took the ubiquitous subject of the weather as the basis for exploring ideas about experience, meditation and representation when he created his “Weather Project” at the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in 2003. This installation is still in my top ten list of favourite exhibitions.
Eliasson’s installation was, in principle, very basic. He placed a giant yellow sun at the end of the turbine hall and covered the ceiling in mirrors. Yet, I remember at the time how everyone in London spoke about the installation and how it made them feel sooooo good to be under his big yellow sun. And that is exactly what it did. It made you feel good. You felt warm, fuzzy, relaxed (meditative?) and part of a bigger picture when you were there. People were lying on the ground looking up into the mirrored ceiling; all feeling part of something but without having to actively participate or perform if they didn’t want to – hence being able to completely relax and not feel watched. I think that to a large extend, the feeling of warmth and relaxation was created by the lighting. It was really Scandinavian and cosy, or “hyggelig’ as we say back home. You find this kind of soft lighting in a lot of Scandinavian homes, not least created by our obsessive use of candle lights. Anyway, back to the Turbine Hall. One thing I loved more than anything about Eliasson’s installation was the interactive element. I went there in my lunch break whenever I could during the show’s duration. As I laid there looking up into the ceiling, I could see friends doing synchronised movements, couples kissing, children waiving and occasionally you would get strangers interacting with each other across the room. It always made me feel all warm inside when I witnessed this and I can’t think of a better measure of a successful in an art installation, than its ability to make the audience “feel”. I felt truly alive when lying there and it somehow restored my faith in human kindness and ability to get on, across the usual boundaries like race, nationality, class etc. I always returned to the office with renewed energy levels.
In discussing this, it is also worth mentioning that a group of 80 people used the installation to make a political statement when they, with their bodies, shaped the letters: “BUSH GO HOME!” (don’t forget that this was in 2003!). Their message was of course reflected on the mirrored ceiling above. Allegedly it was a naked protest, but I cannot find any close-up photos to confirm this and maybe just as well…