RIVERBED: Inside and outside of a landscape
The rain poured down and made it impossible to visit Louisiana's park. Since we arrived an hour before closing time at the art museum outside of Elsinore in Denmark, we had to choose between Emil Nolde and Olafur Eliasson. I had seen more than one Nolde exposition and one of my sisters had given me the beautiful catalog. It was best to save Nolde for another visit, with more time and less people. However, I was curious about Eliasson. I had read about installations in which he had re-created nature. After having rushed through the rain, my family, a sister-in-law and one of my daughters' boyfriend, were not so specially attracted by crowding among a swarm of visitors to quickly look at painting after painting. It appeared to be more attractive to visit what in the advance publicity had been described as a piece of Icelandic nature caught within Louisiana's gallery walls. Eliasson had from Iceland brought down several tons of gravel and stone,and then tipped the entire load into three rooms, where he furthermore had arranged for an artificial stream of water to run through it all.
We hurried on into the exhibition pavilion. Eliasson's installation turned out to be what it claimed to be - 180 tons of gray and black, slightly dusty stones and gravel, which filled three large exhibition halls. A slow moving queue of visitors snaked from room to room, a brook murmured between gravel and stones, it probably came from a tap hidden under a heap of boulders. Uhhmm, this was supposed to be a work of art. White walls surrounded the softly undulating piles of gravel and spread out stones and boulders. Everything was arranged in such a way that it would seem to be as natural as possible - a piece of Icelandic landscape, but sterile, without any signs of oganic life, except the artificial brook made of tap water. I could not grasp the meaning of it all. Listened to the conversations surrounding me and became somewhat angered and irritated at the visitors who made a concerted effort to find meanings, signs and experiences. After all, this was art and Louisiana had paid millions of Danish crowns to bring all this boring stuff down from Iceland. To me it appeared as if the people around me did not see much more than piles of gray and black gravel. My wife complained that the pebbles destroyed the heels on her shoes.
Someone next to me took photo after photo. An elderly man exclaimed enthusiastically in Danish: "A landscape surrounded by white walls. Ingenious! "Another man muttered in Swedish: "More than a hundred Danish bucks for this mess! It's crazy." The lady who in high heels stumbled forward by his side was muttering:" But Nolde was included in the price." "Yes, and he was not worth it either." "You cannot mean that!" "Yes, yes, though some of it was OK and … after all, it was art”. "It is the brook that gives it life," said the elderly gentleman, who had a huge, white mane of hair. "Though, after all it is not a real landscape. It is not true”, stated the lady by his side, an elegant, very lean and furrowed woman in a dress that was boldly patterned in black and yellow. “Of course it is not real. It is art. All art is imitation, an interpretation. As a matter of fact, this is more real than any oil painting of a landscape”, lectured the old Dane. "Gravel is gravel, wherever you put it," muttered the Swedish man, seemingly annoyed to have paid over a hundred Danish crowns just to look at this bold scam.
I slowed down, thinking that if the people around me disappeared out of sight maybe an art experience might come my way. My family hurried on up a wooden staircase by the end of the Icelandic gravel piles. The crowd of chatting people thinned out, but even if the premises became deserted no overwhelming experience took hold of me. I gave up, went up the stairs and came into a room lined by glass walls, behind which the broad strait between Denmark and Sweden spread out - gray under a gray sky. The sea was choppy and the white crests of the waves shone in the grayness. The room was warm and cozy, the windows protected against the raw, cold air out there in the compact rain. I was standing by the window, fascinated by the sight of the landscape; the gray ocean expanse spread out in front of me to almost impercerceptibly join an equally gray sky by the horizon. It was beautiful. From the room's cozy warmth I could enjoy the chilly, damp landscape. I began to suspect that this experience was strengthening my impressions from the recent, short trek across the Icelandic gravel within the rooms behind me. I now saw a landscape that was outside the room, after walking through a landscape that was enclosed by rooms. The scenery inside was as true as the one out there in the approaching evening. The gravel and stones taken from far away Iceland now lived within Louisiana's walls. Lived? It was just gravel and stone.
I went back. The premises were now deserted. I saw how the Icelandic landscape spread out between the walls, it was as if it was floating into room after room. It was connected, uninterupted, while the white walls grew out of it. While I had been watching the cold rain hammering the dark waters of Öresund the Icelandic landscape between the white walls had changed thoroughly. It had grown and taken possession of the rooms. I went down among the boulders and gravel and placed myself by a wall to consider the enclosed landscape. I could now see and hear the murmuring brook making its way between gravel and boulders, the silence made everything widening up. It was magic; the landscape came to life and began to breathe. But then a noisy group of visitors entered, just as before they talked, took photos, looked around while their busy feet crunched the gravel, the room shrank; gravel became gravel, the brook turned into a stream of tap water. The spell vanished. However, when the group left the room rippling water could be heard again, stones and gravel once turned into nature and took possession of the room, transforming it.
I now understood what the man had meant during my previous trekking through the rooms: "A landscape enclosed by white walls. Ingenious!" Sure, it was an art exhibition after all. A sterile landscape of stones and gravel was presented inside the walls of a museum. But just the fact that it was shown in there made me and other visitors pay attention to the miracle that such insignificant objects as gravel and stones have a life of their own, together they formed a landscape and as the white-haired man had stated, it was the water that gave life to it all. I stood in the quiet room, listening to the rippling water and once again felt how the piles of gravel were breathing.
Then my oldest daughter appeared. She had also received some kind of revelation up in the room by the sea. She stood next to me and told me that she had been confused by the gravel piles. Not least due to the fact that she and her sister quite recently had been to Iceland and walked across the deserted expanses up there in the far north. What was the point of taking down all this gravel from up there? Down in the lush landscapes of Denmark it was after all impossible to recreate the strange feeling of finding oneself in the middle of an Icelandic wilderness. Furthermore, she had previously seen Olafur Eliasson´s famous installation The Weather Project in Tate Modern´s Great Hall in London, where Olafur had artificially recreated a huge sun that gave both light and heat. This huge exhibit had not only been a powerful experience, but also constituted a resting place in the middle of hectic London, where some people sought out tranquility several times a week. If Olafur achieved such an impressive work of art in London - what was his meaning with these tedious gravel mounds in Denmark?
In the room with the sea view Janna had browsed through some books and catalogs that lay scattered on a table and in one of them she found a statement by Olafur Eliasson: "Contact is content”. She looked out of the window. Once Andy Warhol had been asked which had been his greatest work of art and he answered: “To look out of the window”. Could this be something similar? She watched the bleak landscape out there. How do you describe a landscape? How do you explain it? Just looking at it creates a form of contact, an experience, and in that sense the landscape obtains a “content”, it becomes meaningful.
Perhaps Eliasson had brought down stones and gravel from Iceland to make us experience a kind of contact with an Icelandic landscape? Through our interaction, our “contact” with the boulders and gravel, their "content" was revealed to us. Janna was standing beside me and together we experienced the same feeling I had had before she came. In addition, Janna now remembered how it had felt to find oneself on these Icelandic expanses. The landscape had been immense and open and yet had she and her sister got the feeling that the sky was low, it rested above them in a completely different way than it did in Sweden: "It was almost as it is here, where the roof is resting over gravel and stones." Janna left me and placed herself in another corner, in another room.
Then my sister-in-law turned up, I motioned her to me and asked her to stand next to me, wanting to test if my experience had been purely imaginary. "Stand here beside me, look and listen" I told her. After a while she said: "It's magic." Without me explaining it to her she had experienced the same thing as I and Janna; how the presence of visitors made the room shrink and transform to nothing else than a room filled with gravel and stone, but as soon as the visitors disappeared entered that strange feeling of peace and nature appeared again. We now experienced it, all of us, including Esmeralda and Vincenzo who joined us and inhaled the strange sensation that we found ourselves in rooms that enclosed a living nature. “Riverbed” is the name Eliasson gave to his installation and you could really found some rest in there.
Was it imagination? Was it because the whole thing was presented like some kind of art that the feeling of magic and rest appeared? Had we maybe experienced something like that which the Greeks described as "catharsis" – a cleansing that enables us see things, life, in a new way? Had Olafur Eliasson predicted all this? Perhaps. I do not really know. I bought the catalog and read it very carefully. Certainly there are many thoughts in it, a search, coupled with some kind of artistic assurance, but I found no description of an experience similar to the one which I and my family had received in there. A fact which further deepens the experience. Each of us was by Olafur Eliasson given an opportunity to create a personal approach to the enclosed landscape he presented us with. Once again I had realized the truth of Emile Zola's assertion about true art: "A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament."