Q&A: Olafur Eliasson

Q&A: Olafur Eliasson

The work and ideas of Buckminster Fuller have been an important touchstone for many of today’s architects, designers, and artists. In her essay for the Whitney Museum’s publication that accompanied the recent Fuller exhibition, Elizabeth Smith, chief curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), traced these influences on a current generation, including Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson. With major exhibitions on both Fuller and Eliasson now on view at the MCA, AN asked Smith to discuss Fuller’s continued relevance, interest, and significance with Eliasson.


Elizabeth Smith: You’ve been thinking about Fuller for a long time. What is it about his work in relationship to your own that you find productive?

Olafur Eliasson: With Fuller’s work, there’s experimentation on so many levels, and of course I have been inspired over the years again and again, beginning with one of my very first pieces titled 8900054. Principally, it was a Fuller dome, and that was the first time I worked with a mathematician and geometrist called Einar Thorsteinn who was a friend of Fuller. My idea was to make a work almost like a Fuller ready-made. At that time, in ’96, he was not at all exposed in the architectural frame of reference, so people reacted to him as a utopian and a person who was very hard to map within the context of spatial thinking. What is exciting and interesting is that in the last 15 years, he’s been integrated into architectural or spatial history in a much more performative and productive way.

Tell me more about Einar Thorsteinn and your collaboration with him.

Well, there is so much to be said about him but most importantly, he was educated in the late 1960s at Frei Otto’s office in Stuttgart, and he was involved as a student with the erection of the Munich Stadium that became so famous with the tensile suspended roof structures. Einar then went back to Iceland. In 1973, he founded Constructions Lab and although involved with architecture, he moved on into different types of mathematical and geometrical research. He also invited Fuller, whom he had first met in ’66, to come to Iceland. Einar had done a handful of dome houses where people are actually living to this day in Iceland. On top of that, Einar is an artist himself and is developing a number of different projects on his own terms.

He has worked in my studio for more than ten years now, and when I say work, I mean that he is deeply involved as a collaborator, and sometimes solves pragmatic challenges with me. Coming from Frei Otto and Fuller, through crystallographic and spatial pattern principles that typically derive from non-modern or non-Euclidian languages, Einar is of course a great resource and of much inspiration to me. I myself have looked into both Fuller and Frei Otto but also into people like Paolo Soleri and Felix Candela and others, who have had these utopian approaches. The inspiration is not necessarily a formal one, based on the language they created; I do think that one of the most striking things about these people and Fuller especially is their conviction in the worth of what they were doing. They would link social aspects with engineering and environmental questions. They would not compartmentalize things like one sees in the general architectural practice of today; they would challenge everything at the same time in a very productive way.

Do you think it was easier for an artist like yourself to recuperate the ideas
of Fuller?

Well, as an artist, I look for languages where I can examine and challenge ideas about singularity—about the person in the world—and about plurality—about collectivity in the world. Fuller successfully created a language that sustains a clear notion of what individuality potentially could be and the sense of responsibility that an individual has. On the other hand, within that language, within that same question, he also has a specific idea about collectivity and its consequences and what kind of responsibility that requires. If you think about it, there are not so many types of spatial practice that would sustain both an explicit idea of individuality and an explicit idea of collectivity. You could say that typically, you have either collective kinds of spaces or spaces that are very much based on individuality. And today I find that we have to take up the great challenge in society to embrace collectivity and individuality rather than polarizing the two, which is the case on the political scene, for instance.

Was agency of the individual as important an idea for Fuller as it is for you?

I’m not saying that he was not a utopian thinker who to a great extent externalized fundamental values into a kind of a dot on the horizon where we would want to be heading. I think he was, as were his contemporaries, utopian in the sense that he implicitly worked with this idea of, “Once we get there, we will be fine.” Where clearly now, both as an artist but also as a participant on Spaceship Earth, I say we have to be fine while we go along, and it doesn’t work to externalize our values into a certain goal; the process with which we move along needs to perform the values by which we live. So one could say that there has been an internalization of Fuller’s values in terms of his utopian tendencies.

The struggle we see in architecture today is: To what extent can one embody the environmental movement, the green movement? In architecture there is that little bit of struggle now whether we should be modern and claim a goal and then create a green movement, or whether we should try to mobilize, create an architecture based on our individual sense of responsibility. One could split those two kinds of architecture into a normative architecture, which is the modern one that tries to create a generalized idea of how we sustain ecological architectural principles, and this is something that Fuller in a sense initiated, and a more non-normative movement that we individually define because this also allows for a different kind of emotional involvement.

To me it seems that Fuller’s approach is as much about setting a goal and pragmatically reaching it as it is about living one’s life in a way that significantly demonstrates ethical values.

Looking at Fuller’s work, the question is also, what does an exhibition like this do?
I think there is an incredible potential in Fuller, but how are his theory, his arguments, values, and tools reintroduced to a contemporary spatial practice? How does one see the tools in today’s context rather than as historical tools? I’m very interested in that question: Are we looking at new drawings by Fuller that happened to be made 50 years ago, or are we looking at 50-year-old drawings today? I think it’s incredibly important to consider his contribution contemporary. I think we need to adopt a contemporary view as we walk into the museum and we have to imagine that Fuller is a 23-year-old architecture student.

That activates or introduces a certain performative aspect to an exhibition like the one at the MCA, which I think can be strikingly convincing. I find it productive because clearly, the effort in the show has been to describe the legacy of Fuller, and he in every way deserves that and it hasn’t been done so far. But we also have to acknowledge that this can be slightly stigmatizing because you suddenly see the tools in a vitrine rather than in your hands. And as an artist I believe that one of the great challenges, and one of the great things about art, is that it insists on being in your hands rather than in a vitrine. So I think the greatest potential of a show like this becomes apparent if we consider it a fully contemporary exhibition.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe is on view through July 5 and Take your time: Olafur Eliasson is on view through September 13.