Reality is relative

Olafur Eliasson Symbiotic seeing 17.01. – 22.03.2020

The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) is one of the most important figures in the contemporary art scene. He creates immersive installations that speak to our senses and dissolve the boundaries between the viewer and the work. His spatial works invite us to think about our selves and our perception as well as the important issues of our time.The new works the artist created specially for the Kunsthaus focus on the relationship between people, animals, plants and other species inhabiting Earth.

‘My senses are my experiential guides – they generate my innermost awareness of time while generously giving depth to my surroundings. Constantly and critically invested in the world of today, they receive, evaluate, and produce my reality.’

Olafur Eliasson

Reality is relative

Algae window (2020) is a circular arrangement of glass spheres mounted in a wall.

Directly behind the wall and the spheres is a window; vivid, miniature, inverted views of the scene outside the gallery thus appear in and inhabit each sphere. The composition of the work closely resembles the structure of one type of the single-celled algae known as diatoms, which remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

The patterns are reminiscent of the lithographs of diatoms published by the German physician and zoologist Ernst Haeckel in his book Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) in 1904. ‘The main purpose of my Kunstformen der Natur was an aesthetic one. I wished to give a larger number of people access to the wonderful and beautiful treasures which are hidden in the depths of the sea or which, due to their small size, can only be seen under the microscope.’

‘I make the construction accessible to the visitors in order to heighten their awareness that each artwork is an option or model.’

Olafur Eliasson

There is something magical about many of Olafur Eliasson’s works; they awaken in us a childlike sense of curiosity. But Eliasson also believes it is important to show how the effect is created – to reveal the construction behind the illusion. This combination of magic and technology is characteristic of Eliasson’s art.

His works often resemble scientific experiments. In contrast to scientists testing speculative hypotheses, however, Eliasson is interested in conjuring uncertainty and raising questions that can provide a space for new ideas, themes and thought experiments.


In Algae window Olafur Eliasson creates an optical illusion that literally turns the world upside down. For Eliasson, however, it’s not about devising optical tricks; instead, he seeks to question established certainties and rigid systems of thought. By enlarging the microscopic images of individual diatoms to such an extent that a human being suddenly appear small by comparison, he prepares the ground for new forms of understanding and an alternative view of the world.

Space as process

Space as Process

In his installation Escaped light landscape (2020), Olafur Eliasson creates a fascinating interplay of coloured lights which appear to set the room into motion.

A continually changing sequence of circles and arcs of light plays out along the walls. The shapes slowly elongate and distort, wax and wane, new ones appear, changing in hue from wan blue to an intense solar yellow. This light show emerges from a black box into which a spotlight is shining. By peering through gaps in the box, viewers can see the construction inside that creates the patterns of light on the wall.

Escaped light landscape is an arrangement of light, colour-effect filters, concave glass mirrors and a lens like those found in lighthouses. As the lenses and filters rotate, they transform colours and forms and the entire space seems to move with them. When visitors step into the light and cast their own shadows into the composition, they not only become a part of the work – their presence is what brings the work into being.

‘The central theme is the role of the viewer or user. The question is whether their activities or actions are what actually brings the artwork into being. One can say that, without their participation, it has no meaning.’

Olafur Eliasson

In Eliasson’s art, the viewers or users play an active role. They interact with the works in different ways and, in doing so, they become their co-authors.

Many of his works invite the viewers to consider their own position in the room in relationship to the work and other visitors. In a wider sense, this means becoming aware of one’s own role in the world at large. Eliasson’s works therefore also function as models of society and of the relationships between individuals and groups.


Escaped light landscape is a work that changes constantly as the motors in the box actuate the lenses and the visitors move around the room. The imagery varies with the number of people in the installation casting their shadows upon the walls, demonstrating the contingency of work, visitors and space.

I look at the world as a model

I look at the world as a model

Rudimentary optical devices such as kaleidoscopes have been an important line of inquiry for Olafur Eliasson over the last twenty years.

Eliasson’s kaleidoscopes are simple constructions made of mirrors. They create the illusion of three-dimensional space which incorporates the viewers and their surroundings. The kaleidoscopes are like ‘seeing machines’ that challenge viewers to conceive of perception as a deliberate activity.

Kaleidosphere (2020) unites thirty different kaleidoscopes into a single, spherical sculpture evoking the shape of historical globes.

‘What we see is what the brain thinks is most practical. But if you are an artist, or think critically, you question what you see. You realise that reality is negotiable. The idea that reality can change is a very healthy one, since the notion of progress or change is rooted there.’

Olafur Eliasson

A globe is a spherical model of the world. The origins of such globes are closely connected to the fifteenth-century voyages of discovery, the mapping of the world and mankind’s appropriation of Earth.

Meanwhile, our colonisation of the world has advanced very far indeed. This conquest was based on a view of the world in which humans saw themselves as superior to nature and Earth’s other species – a world view that in many ways is still accepted today.


Instead of a global overview, the thirty different polyhedrons offer a fragmented view of reality in which the viewers always see themselves in relationship to the reflected space and the other people within it. Our hegemonial view of the globe is thus rendered impossible. Instead, it becomes clear that we are part of a complex system in which the most diverse agents interact with one another.

Symbiotic seeing

Symbiotic seeing

The installation Symbiotic seeing (2020), comprising nearly 400 m2, forms the centre of the eponymous exhibition.

Upon entering the darkened room, visitors discover a fascinating interplay of colours, movement and light. The turmoil of colours evokes images of lights reflected on water. The installation’s size also calls images of the sea to mind, but what looks like the water’s surface is actually hovering above the visitors’ heads. The soundtrack was composed by Hildur Gudnadottir and is played live on a cello by a robotic arm.    

  • Fig. 32 Lynn Margulis, Credit: BU (Boston University), Photography in Allen, Roland & Lidstrom, Suzy (2017). Life, the Universe, and everything—42 fundamental questions. Physica Scripta. 92.(01)
  • Ernst Haeckel, Beiträge zur Plastidentheorie, In: Jenaische Zeitschrift für Medizin und Naturwissenschaft. Bd. 5, 1870, Plate XVII, Fig 1, Bathybius Haeckelii, 1870
  • Research pin-wall, detail. Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2019, Photo: Mirjam Varadinis
  • Shoshanah Dubiner, Endosymbiosis: Homage to Lynn Margulis, 2012, Gouache On Stonehenge Paper, © Shoshanah Dubiner
  • Test, 2019, for Symbiotic seeing, 2020, Photo: Maria del Pilar Garcia Ayensa / Studio Olafur Eliasson
  • Test, 2019, for Symbiotic seeing, 2020, Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa / Studio Olafur Eliasson

Lasers concealed in the walls project slices of coloured light onto fog released periodically into the air. The work changes depending on how many people are in the installation at one time. The visitors’ body heat and motion influences the air currents and, thus, the visual interplay taking place overhead.

‘Think of the role played by our microbiome in determining who we are – the sum of all the bacteria, fungi, archaea, and viruses inside us is estimated to make up more than half of the substance of our body. This means that we are as much non-human as we are human.’

Olafur Eliasson

One important inspiration for Symbiotic seeing was the research conducted by the American biologist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) and the chemist James Lovelock. In the 1960s, the two researchers formulated the ‘Gaia hypothesis’. Gaia, from the Greek root meaning ‘Earth’, was the name of the mother goddess who personified the planet. Margulis and Lovelock hypothesized that the planet Earth and the biosphere can be understood as an organism, given that the biosphere (the entirety of all organisms) creates and maintains the conditions not only for life, but also for the evolution of more complex organisms.

In her book The Symbiotic Planet (1998), Margulis goes on to explain how symbiosis in the development of life is just as important as the ‘survival of the fittest’ formulated by Charles Darwin. She describes how symbiotic relationships take place at the micro as well as at the macro level: ‘[H]umans are not the work of God but thousands of millions of years of interaction among highly responsive microbes.’ Just like the transition from single-celled to multicellular organisms was based on cooperation, the populating of Earth was only possible thanks to fungi and plants working together. According to Margulis, all lifeforms together regulate the Earth’s temperature and atmosphere – an interesting idea in the era of the Anthropocene, during which the relationship between humans and the Earth has become severely unbalanced. (You can find out more about this topic in the exhibition catalogue.)


With the installation Symbiotic seeing, and indeed with the exhibition as a whole, Olafur Eliasson aims to achieve a shift in perspective. While inviting visitors to think of climate change as a consequence of human activity, most of all he wishes us to comprehend the human being as part of a larger system. He sets out to critically interrogate the relationship and hierarchy of humans and other species on Earth, and create  space for other forms of coexistence based on cooperation instead of competition.

I want to have an impact

I want to have an impact

Olafur Eliasson is a socially and environmentally engaged artist working together with politicians and NGOs. He believes that art is a language with the potential to mobilise people and to change the world.

Topics such as climate change, migration and the exploitation of our planet’s resources play a central role in Eliasson’s work. He is able to translate these fundamental questions and social issues into a formal language that not only speaks to people in rational terms, but also touches them emotionally and physically.
In September 2019 he was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for climate action by the United Nations Development Programme.


Ice Watch, 2014. Bankside, outside Tate Modern, London, 2018, Photo: Charlie Forgham-Bailey

For Ice Watch, Eliasson placed huge blocks of ice from Greenland on public squares in Copenhagen (2014), Paris (2015) and London (2018) where, they slowly melted. This impressive gesture makes the consequences of climate catastrophe physically perceptible and ‘tangible’ in the truest sense of the word.

Little girl playing with Little Sun Original in Ethiopia, © Merklit Mersha

Another project illustrative of Olafur Eliasson’s social engagement and his support for renewable energies is his Little Sun initiative, which he launched in 2012 together with the engineer Frederik Ottesen. The aim of this project is to bring light to parts of the world with irregular or no access to electricity by producing small, solar-powered lights in the form of a flower. Since the social business initiative Little Sun was started, nearly one million of these lamps have been distributed.

Lunch at the studio, Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa / Studio Olafur Eliasson

While Eliasson uses his art to address environmental issues, his daily artistic practice is also guided by the principle of cooperation and an awareness of sustainable social practices. Since the mid-1990s he has worked together with a large interdisciplinary team of specialists in his Berlin studio, which includes not only craftspeople and architects, but also media specialists, chefs and others. Every day the team comes together for a freshly cooked, sustainable vegetarian lunch in the studio kitchen. The studio is also a small system of coexistence.

UNDP for SOE, 2019, Studio Olafur Eliasson, https://vimeo.com/361815164

Insider tip

Insider tip

‘Black Out’: open until 11 p.m.
23 January & 6 February

In 2012 Eliasson set up the social business Little Sun, an initiative that uses small, solar-powered lamps in the form of a flower to bring light to parts of the world that have no, or only irregular, access to electricity. The two Black Out events accompanying the exhibition illustrate just what that means. Visitors will be able to visit part of the Kunsthaus Collection in the dark, equipped only with Little Sun lamps. Part of the proceeds of this action will go to the Little Sun project.