Symbiotic seeing – Olafur Eliasson

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is one of the most important artists of our time. A major solo exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich presents many of his new works. Virtual exhibition…

Curator: Mirjam Varadinis

“I strongly believe in the importance of having physical, embodied experiences. It matters to actually engage with our senses.” Olafur Eliasson

At its centre is a large scale installation created exclusively for Zurich that addresses a key issue of our age: the relationship and interplay between human and non-human actors on Earth.
In ‘Symbiotic seeing’, Eliasson tackles themes such as coexistence and symbiosis and aims to bring about a fundamental shift of perspective. The exhibition invites us not only to reflect on climate change – as a consequence of human action – but also to comprehend the human being as part of a larger system. The socially and environmentally committed artist, who was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN in September 2019, proposes an idea of the world based on coexistence and collaboration rather than competition.
Eliasson’s art translates complex theoretical deliberations into spatial works that not only appeal to people rationally but also touch them emotionally and move them physically.
He has been working for over twenty years with an interdisciplinary team that includes craftspeople, architects, media specialists and cooks. He is known for space-filling works, light works and sculptures that prompt audiences to reflect on themselves and the world as they experience them.
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 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.

Research pin-wall, detail. Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2019, Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson

“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

Installation view Symbiotic seeing, Visualisation by Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2019

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.)

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