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Riverbed – Olafur Eliasson

Svava Riesto and Henriette Steiner

Riverbed is Olafur Eliasson’s first solo exhibition at the Danish modern art museum Louisiana. For more than two decades the famous Danish-Icelandic artist’s has been preoccupied with investigating how we sense landscape through movement.

Riverbed – Olafur Eliasson (photo: Anders Sune Berg)




The Danish modern art museum Louisiana is known as a place where architecture, art and landscape are united into one. The museum is constructed as a succession of gallery spaces that are partly closed off from the surroundings and partly open to the meticulously kept sculpture garden with its stunning views of the Øresund Strait. The act of walking through the museum becomes the vehicle through which the exhibited art objects, the architecture, the garden and the sea enter into a symbiotic relationship and through which that very particular beauty, specific to this place, reveals itself.

Therefore, nothing seems a more obvious match than the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Louisiana. For more than two decades he has been preoccupied with investigating how we sense landscape through movement, and his work is characterised by a persistent interest in the particular beauty of Nordic landscapes. This is the famous artist’s first solo exhibition at Louisiana, and the museum presents it as being both ‘radical’ and ‘site-specific’. But can ‘radical’ and ‘site-specific’ come together under the auspices of an established museum institution such as Louisiana? Or, in other words, we may ask if the happy marriage of Louisiana and Eliasson cancels out critical potential that they both hesitantly pursue.

Riverbed – A Slow Moment Between the Earth and the Luminous Sky

The exhibition entitled Riverbed is divided into three parts: a film installation, a so-called model room that has a large table with hand-made scale models of art projects from Eliasson’s oeuvre, and the main installation covering approximately one-quarter of the entire museum: Riverbed in the south wing.

We enter the exhibition by a narrow corridor with white-painted walls and roughly cut-out wood flooring, ridding ourselves of the locomotion and visual noise of the foyer and the museum shop. Yet, we also feel surprised by the cheap wood aesthetic that forms a contrast to the high-end materials otherwise used at Louisiana. Turning a corner, a grey, stony volcanic landscape finally reveals itself. Louisiana’s south wing has been filled with volcanic pebble stones, changing the sequence of rooms into in a curving landscape. A small stream trickles through it. The water is almost milky-white as if coloured by volcanic ash and, in some places, small puddles covered by a sticky, gross-looking, soap-bubbly foam residue are formed. The dry, crunching sound of stones being ground together beneath our feet is intense, sometimes mixing together with the softer sound of the trickling water. A bright ceiling light creates an extreme, uniform luminosity; light meets the darkness of the earth, but it also clearly makes this an artificial nature, a desert-like, even dystopian space. Our movement is slowed down. We stroll through the scenery, heads bent down when we move through doorways separating the gallery spaces.

Olafur Eliasson questions: What is radical?

We exit the exhibition by walking into a glazed corner room and are directly presented with one of the stunning views of the water for which Louisiana is so famous. Here, we are suddenly ‘back to normal’, finding relief in the open horizon of this meticulously framed view, but, despite the clarity of the aesthetic expression of the artwork, uncertain sure whether this rite de passage has changed us, or has even changed Louisiana, for that matter.

For what is site-specific about the Riverbed? And what is radical? The founder of Louisiana Knud W. Jensen repeatedly used the term Genius Loci, to describe an approach where the local landscape form was understood as the main quality of the place and the guiding principle for the museum’s architecture. Eliasson’s Riverbed certainly does form a contrast to this narrative. It is not the local landscape with which it is in dialogue. Instead, a rather alien, non-organic landscape of stone and water has been transported into the pleasant location north of Copenhagen.

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Escaping the Tyranny of Place?

The notion of ‘tyranny of place’ is an idea introduced by professor of architecture and urbanism Mari Hvattum to describe how a special way of reading the ‘spirit of a place’ can suppress other perceptions. And one wonders if Eliasson can help us see Louisiana in a different way, I.e. as a place where a certain narrative about space-specificity has becomes stifled into a form of enjoyment of art that is consumed in picturesque and place-specific, feel-good environments. Instead of retelling the renowned narrative of Louisiana’s beautiful topography, Eliasson cuts us off from the surroundings and imports a different and rough beauty. This foreign and completely non-organic landscape is grey and matte to the point where we feel that it absorbs even the sound of our voices. We are overcome by a feeling of uncanniness . This is emphasised by the fact that the water is not clear, and that the foam in the little puddles makes it look like the water is somehow polluted. We are bereft of windows, of a horizon and of fresh air. And in this lack of orientation in a seemingly endless grey desert, our bodily senses are certainly heightened and our mind is challenged.

But the view of the stony landscape is meticulously framed and despite the unfamiliar practice of being able to move freely through and around the art work, it certainly does feel very much like Louisiana. Riverbed may be seen as an alternative to the place and comfort zone which Louisiana has come to be and which is so ingrained in our expectations of what may meet us there. The work itself, however, seems to succumb to another kind of genius-loci that makes it specifically Elisasson-esque. If we are transformed, we are guided back into the museum shop where we are urged to buy one of Eliasson’s newer art projects. The question about what was radical and how it really made us see things in new ways is still unanswered.


Museum of Modern Art
Olafur Eliasson
until 4 January 2015


Interested in other Danish stories? The BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group has published a new book which has no less goal than to take a visionary look onto the architecture throughout the course of time. The word “formgivning” means “design” in Danish – the home of star architect Bjarke Ingels. Click here for more.