Interview with Olafur Eliasson on his pavilion in the park for the Serpentine

The Danish artist, whose Weather Project transformed Tate Modern, discusses his building for the Serpentine Gallery


Olafur Eliasson has reversed a waterfall, turned rivers green, constructed rainbows and created several suns—most notably the one that transformed Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall into a misty, sickly-sublime setting, The Weather Project, which attracted some 2.3m visitors during its six month run in 2003. Eliasson has now been commissioned, with Norwegian architect Kjetil Thorsen, to design the eighth Serpentine Gallery summer pavilion which will be unveiled in late July (until October). The Danish-Icelandic artist’s ability to work with natural phenomena—water, light, wind and temperature—to produce art that insists on the immediacy of experience and ­viewers’ active participation have made him one of the international art world’s most celebrated figures. He is also involved in a number of ­architectural projects including the design of the Icelandic National Concert and Conference Centre in Reykjavik, new plans for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and a large rooftop extension at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark.

The Art Newspaper: Your Berlin-based studio has been described as “a laboratory for spatial research”. How does the Serpentine’s pavilion fit into that?

Olafur Eliasson: My studio in Berlin has been called a laboratory but I guess that can be said about pretty much any artist’s studio. We are experimenting with different works and different ideas. I consider the pavilion to be a work of art and the distinction between architecture and art in this case doesn’t make any sense to me—the issues that I am concerned with in all my work are also the issues that this pavilion tries to deal with. If you look at society as a whole today there is not much experimenting going on—­everything has been systematised, radicalised, commodified into a very non-experimental ­trajectory—so, in the context of the real world, experimenting like we do in my studio suddenly seems much more radical. It’s a non-linear way of progressing with things. It is also important to mention that the pavilion is a collaboration with the architect Kjetil Thorsen.

TAN: From the designs that I have seen, it appears that the form of the Serpentine pavilion is dictated by the experience of moving through it, with its wide, central spiralling ramp making it look a bit like a giant spinning top.

OE: When Kjetil and I suggested a formal ­language with which to express this idea of the performative aspects of experiencing a space in time, it is important to understand that we [did] not do this from a neutral background. We are already in a loaded area where experiential conditions are defined by already existing rules.

TAN: What rules applied to the Serpentine?

OE: We looked at the larger, more general history of the park, how it has been landscaped and how historically people have used the park as a ­meeting point or a place to interact with each other. Then there is the history of the teahouse that became the Serpentine and the fact that the Serpentine is a Royal Park. Then we took the other seven Serpentine pavilions into ­consideration, and even though they always articulated a kind of architectural statement, they have stayed within the realm of a functional project rather than a conceptual trajectory.

TAN: So were they designed more for use?

OE: Yes—they were all very classically organised as a vertical plane with a capsule on top. Instead of having a typical hut structure, we suggested a more sequential idea of what a space principle could be about, so the performative element of this pavilion also came out of the immediate ­history of simply trying not to do the same [thing] as the other ones.

TAN: What will your pavilion do?

OE: We have tried to work very closely with the Serpentine programming people about the nature of the events going on inside the pavilion so that the pavilion layout and its architectural conditions would be integrated into the nature of the events which would be taking place inside. So right from the beginning we started talking about whether it would be more like a place for different types of exchange formats such as workshops or ­experiments with people or scientists. We are still working this out: we have about 20 different types of activities inside ranging from experiments in music, colour, science, laboratories and even some food digestion questions which we are trying to work on.

TAN: Recently you have been working on several architectural projects—do you see these as interchangeable with your art?

OE: I don’t think I’d be any good as an architect! There are some significant differences between the practice of an architect and an artist, although I respect architecture immensely. Generally, over the last ten to 15 years, the language and the toolbox of artistic practice today has become so spatially rich whereas architects to a greater extent are ­integrated or interlocked with the pace of urban development—they cannot go faster than the clients who ask them to build their buildings. So research in architecture is more limited but in art there has been an explosion of interest in how a space can perform in various ways. This goes for very, very different practices: one could mention the Artangel project by Gregor Schneider in London (Die Familie Schneider, 2004) which in terms of spatial sophistication is much more complex than most architecture today. Or you could look at John Bock’s work at the ICA in London (2004) which showed an unbelievable degree of complexity and ­sophistication. And I say this without being very personally interested in either Schneider or Bock.

TAN: The Serpentine Pavilion is for sale and could end up in a completely different location—does that concern you?

OE: I think that the space in front of the Serpentine is like an exhibition platform, it is almost like an extension of the inside—it is their front porch. So the pavilion is a principle, it is a suggestion and an experiment about what ­architecture, art and space can do in a slightly larger context than the actual Serpentine gallery. It is a real building but it is also a one-to-one model of a principle and because it is a model it doesn’t need to be romantically integrated into the park. It is more about what space can offer as a ­construction or as a model today, metaphorically speaking. If this pavilion takes another life and is integrated in a different context and goes from being a model to become a permanent thing, I don’t see a conflict with that. It is just like an exhibition in a gallery which is open for a few months and then the work goes into a different context.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Olafur Eliasson’s pavilion in the park'