Olafur Eliasson | 7 Mesmerizing Contemporary Installations

Olafur Eliasson is a famous Danish–Icelandic artist known for his contemporary art installations. Here, we look at seven of his fascinating projects!

Dec 17, 2020By Dea Cvetković, BA and MA in Art History
the weather project olafur
The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, 2003; with Frost Activity by Olafur Eliasson, 2004


Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic contemporary artist born in 1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Eliasson works in many mediums, but he is widely known for his installation art. By playing with simple elements like light, water, and mirrors, the artist creates mesmerizing visual effects. Eliasson often mixes science, technology, and art when creating his pieces. His Studio in Berlin was established in 1995 and now holds 90 employees. The Studio consists of many experts of different fields that work together with the artist when researching and developing new works of art. Eliasson’s pieces often challenge our visual perception of the world around us and raise many questions. Ready to be impressed? Let’s look at seven of his contemporary art installations. 


1. Olafur Eliasson’s Famous Early Piece Beauty

Beauty by Olafur Eliasson, 1993, via Studio Olafur Eliasson 


Beauty is one of Olafur Eliasson’s best-known works and like the title says: it truly is beautiful! The piece consists of a space where a thin layer of water pours down from above, looking almost like a mist, while the light is projected onto it. When walking around or through the piece the visitors are able to see rainbow colors. Every person’s experience of this contemporary art installation is different. The colors and reflections one person sees when walking around it could be completely different from what others see. Therefore, every experience is unique – just like in life.


Olafur Eliasson created this piece early in his career in 1993. During that time, he was still a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Art. The installation might seem simpler than his newer work, but the piece is just as mesmerizing and fascinating as any other. Beauty also introduces us to Eliasson’s general approach to art. Mixing light and water is often present in his projects. The artist also combines scientific knowledge and art when creating his installations. In this piece, Olafur Eliasson shows us a poetic side of natural phenomena and he does it beautifully. 


2. Riverbed 

Riverbed by Olafur Eliasson, 2014, via Studio Olafur Eliasson 


Riverbed is one of the most fascinating contemporary art installations created by Olafur Eliasson in 2014. This site-specific installation was created for the beautiful Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The museum is famous for its superb location next to the Baltic Sea. For the Riverbed exhibition, Eliasson filled the whole space of the museum with two tons of rocks from Iceland. The newly created landscape was made of volcanic stones, blue basalt, lava, gravel, and sand. The water flow that imitated a river was inserted too, and the sound of the stream was a part of the exhibition experience as well. 

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By walking around the exhibition freely, museum guests were invited to create their own path or follow the one that had already been established by others. Audience participation is crucial in Olafur Eliasson’s contemporary art installation. Therefore, visitors also create the meaning of the work by changing it themselves and decide how they want to approach the work of art. 


These types of art installations change how we see museums. They turn them into active and existing places where we get to see something completely unexpected. For Olafur Eliasson, the Riverbed installation also destabilizes the viewers by making them walk differently in a familiar setting. The visitors get to experience the museum in a new way. 


3. The Weather Project 

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, 2003, via Studio Olafur Eliasson 


The Weather Project is Olafur Eliasson’s contemporary art installation created in 2003 for the Tate Modern in London. The installation was placed in the long Turbine Hall of the museum. Throughout the space, water was sprayed in order to achieve a cloud-like atmosphere and mist. The only source of light came from the huge artificial sun in the foyer. Eliasson’s artificial sun was made out of hundreds of yellow halogenic lights. A big mirror was positioned on the ceiling of the Turbine Hall so that everyone who was experiencing the exhibition could also see themselves when looking up. People gathered in groups, they sat or lay down, so that they could experience the installation in a meditative way. 


The artist was inspired by environmental issues and the fact that the weather affects our perception of time. He has said: “I came up with the idea in January when it was snowing in London one day and warm the next and people were talking about global warming.”

Eliasson has also noted that he was particularly inspired by the amount of time British people spend talking about the weather. 


Eliasson has said that “the climate debate is incredibly academic and science-driven and very hard to understand because it’s so abstract.” The artist however thinks that we as people understand things better once we get a physical sense of them. 


The exhibition was a huge hit and more than two million people came to see it!   


4. Eliasson’s Contemporary Art Installation At Versailles 

Installation at Versailles by Olafur Eliasson, 2016, via Studio Olafur Eliasson


Each year, a contemporary artist is invited to create an exhibition at the palace of the French monarchy – Chateau de Versailles. The invited artists are supposed to create works that correspond with the look of the Versailles palace. Since 2008, many guest artists have had exhibitions there. These include Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Anish Kapoor. Olafur Eliasson was invited to come up with a contemporary art installation for the summer of 2016. For the Versailles installation, Eliasson used technology in order to present a natural phenomenon: a waterfall. The artificial waterfall was positioned in the grand canal in the spacious Versailles gardens. Previously, the artist created four big artificial waterfalls in New York City in 2008. Those installations were commissioned by the Public Art Fund. 


In Versailles, another two installations were created for the gardens named Fog Assembly and Glacial Rock Flour Garden. Eliasson also created pieces for the inside of the palace. He positioned mirrors and lights inside the rooms to make the interiors seem larger and different from what the visitor expected them to be. Olafur Eliasson has said that he wanted people to feel empowered by Versailles and “exercise their senses, embrace the unexpected, drift through the gardens, and feel the landscape take shape through their movement.”


5. Your Uncertain Shadow (Color)

Your Uncertain Shadow (Color) by Olafur Eliasson, 2010, via Studio Olafur Eliasson 


Your Uncertain Shadow (Color) is a contemporary art installation created by Olafur Eliasson in 2010. Like most of his installations, this one too requires audience participation. The audience actually produces the visuals in this piece. By standing in front of a reflector, the viewers see their shadows being cast on a white wall in four different colors. The HMI lights cast shadows in blue, green, orange, and magenta. The way the audience moves also changes the piece, so the viewers are indeed co-creators of the installations. The intensity of color and size of the silhouettes change with the way visitors move around the room. 


Like many of his installations, in Your Uncertain Shadow (Color) Olafur Eliasson uses technology to create amazing visual effects in a simple setting. Just by playing with light, he creates a fascinating, engaging artwork where everyone is invited to participate. The artist has said it himself: “You’re not consuming art – you’re producing art by experiencing it! Suddenly as a viewer you are not a passive receiver, but a proactive producer of art.”


6. Frost Activity

Frost Activity by Olafur Eliasson, 2004, via Studio Olafur Eliasson 


Frost Activity was one of the installations Olafur Eliasson created for his exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum in 2004. In this installation, Eliasson places a mirror on the ceiling of the room so that the gorgeous stone floor reflects on it. The floor for the installation was made out of Icelandic volcanic rocks called dolerite, rhyolite, blue and black basalt. Eliasson spent parts of his childhood in Iceland and he often uses the Icelandic landscape as inspiration for his works. 


Like in the Weather Project in Tate Modern, the visitors could also see themselves in the large ceiling mirror. People watching themselves in mirrors while looking at Eliasson’s art is a recurring theme in his oeuvre. It is as if our participation is being acknowledged and confirmed by the visual presence of our image in the mirrors. In Frost Activity, Olafur Eliasson plays with our perception again. We see a double image of everything: people around us, the white walls of the gallery, and the beautiful stone floor.


7. Monochromes And Olafur Eliasson: Room For One Color 

Room for One Color by Olafur Eliasson, 1997, via Studio Olafur Eliasson 


Room for One Color is another early piece in which Olafur Eliasson plays with color and light. For this contemporary art installation, mono-frequency yellow lamps were placed on the ceiling in an empty space. These lights created an atmosphere where everything was perceived as black or gray once you have entered the room. The color escapes the room and what we are left with is a new world to see. The artist challenged the audience to see everyone around them in a different way. 


Eliasson also wants us to question our own perception of things. Can we be wrong? Are there other ways of looking at things? How much do we rely on our senses? Can we be tricked by visual illusions? These are just a couple of questions the viewers get to ask themselves after seeing the world, literally, in a different light in the Room for One Color installation. The idea of using monochromes in art is, of course, not something new. It was explored during many different art movements in the 20th century. We see monochromatic colors in works created by artists like Yves Klein, Robert Ryman, Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt, just to name a few. Olafur Eliasson is another artist that explores how color affects our perception of the world around us. 


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By Dea CvetkovićBA and MA in Art HistoryDea has a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in history of Art from the University of Belgrade. Her main fields of interest include modern and contemporary art, American art, gender studies, photography, and film. She loves taking pictures, watching movies, traveling, and wandering around museums.