artintelligence

July 17, 2012

Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project: Sublimity in the Early 21c

Filed under: Sublime — Graham Coulter-Smith

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, is one of the most significant works of the early 21c especially from the perspective of the sublime, and perhaps because of its relationship to sublimity. Entering this installation was like walking into one of Turner’s proto-impressionistic landscapes. The Weather Project is a pinnacle of installation art due to the intensity of the experience. The simulated sun and haze stimulated the good chemicals in the body-mind producing a sense of bliss. But the point Eliasson is trying to make in this remarkable work is counterintuitive and prototypically postmodern which is that the installation is pure theatre, pure contraption. This work is very distant from the Romanticism of Turner according to the intention of the artist it points to our separation from nature and even to the alien nature of nature.
Our separation from nature and capacity for simulation are brought about by our ability to analyse nature. Our curious position is to be an organism created by nature that can manipulate nature, an aptitude considerably elaborated upon by power of society and culture. Eliasson takes this further by adding a Foucauldian perspective wherein experience is socially conditioned.
The most fundamental point Eliasson is trying to make appears to be that our peculiar situation is not to be in nature, a part of nature like animals but to be existentially alienated from nature. The gift, or curse, of rational consciousness enables us to take nature apart and create a second nature.
Art is firmly in the realm of second nature and the Kantian position is that the sublime is a mental experience—not an experience of nature per se. Although Kant’s aesthetics focus on nature in his analytic of the sublime he claims that human reason is superior to nature; which is to say the capacity to manipulate and understand nature indicates a degree of superiority over nature. The key question becomes whether the simulation is the superior to the original—a concept taken seriously by poststructuralist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida.
In nature we might experience nature naturally but in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern we experience a simulation of nature artificially. The genius of The Weather Project is to demonstrate that sublimity in art is synthetic and simulacral.
But what about the experience? The generation of good chemicals in the body-mind that provided many people with such a strong experience in this installation is extraordinary. Rather than taking a romantic position and suggesting that an experience of bliss is a connection with our inner nature, Eliasson seems to be pointing to the way in which such an experience can be induced by a synthetic apparatus. Or does The Weather Project demonstrate that we can connect with our inner nature via simulation? And what does that say about our ‘inner nature’?
In a certain sense he is suggesting that we are machines, like the apparatus he constructed. One thinks here of the ‘love gasoline’ that powers Duchamp’s Large Glass. One might consider also Carsten Holler’s Pea Love Room with it’s invitation to drink from a bottle of PEA (phenylethylamine) a synthetic chemical associated with the experience of love and the base chemical for the class of substances associated with psychedelic experience.
One could easily interpret The Weather Project in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s evocation of delirium but  that would be a synthetic interpretation mapping into the domain of academic texts as opposed to social reality. The project of blowing capitalism apart with schizophrenia is a million miles away from The Weather Project. For Eliasson reality is socially constructed his position is Foucauldian we are products of discursive flows and art is firmly located within the discursive social matrix.
The Weather Project is not a drug it is a theatrical apparatus and is of interest in terms of the way in which socially constructed situations can induce emotion. Eliasson seems to be demonstrating that even our inner experience is constructed.
There is a massive gap between the romantic sublimity of Kusama’s Infinity Room and the simulacral sublimity of Eliasson’s The Weather Project. But this difference is mainly in the context of artistic intention. Both are simulated; the only difference is that Kusama does not foreground or focus on the constructed nature of her work. She has the romantic intention that the viewer might enter into her schizophrenic experience, which is neither possible nor desirable via her Infinity Room. The first thing we are told when entering it is to be careful to keep to the pathway as the mirror on the floor is made of water. Kusama wants us to forget this theatricality whereas Eliasson foregrounds it.

1 Comment »

  1. I think you have mistaken the sublime as beauty here. The sublime that Kant describes reminds of our cognitive ineptness, nature itself is a reminder of this. And if you do accept Kant’s description of the sublime then when it is present in art is can only be a theme because the experiential sublime is personal phenomena.

    Comment by Liz — October 2, 2012 @ 6:37 am

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