Kunsthaus Zurich presents the latest drive of Danish-Icelandic eco-guru Olafur Eliasson to raise climate awareness through art. The show “Symbiotic Seeing” is more an experimentation than it is art, but it pushes us to think about collaborative action to tackle the mess we’re in. The immersive exhibition is exclusive to the Kunsthaus Zurich.

Eliasson’s eco-mission

It’s a curious thing to say of a climate militant, but Olafur Eliasson litters the planet with his well-wishing projects, some of them disturbingly energy-voracious, like carting bits of icebergs down from the Artic to our urban front doors. How’s that for a carbon footprint?

Nothing new here: to get the word out, you have to travel, and if you want the word to go fast, you have to travel even more. As fossil fuel barons continue to loot a house that is burning down, Eliasson tackles the urgency by hopping hither and thither around the planet, but he is on a mission. In 2019 alone, major Eliasson projects took place in Lisbon (Serralves), Munich (Pinakothek) and London (Tate Modern), each one of them surprisingly different.

A mirror of nature

Well, yes, the house is on fire and there is no time to lose. Eliasson is knocking on the door, he wants to show us what there is to save.The reason we accept his extravaganzas is that he operates like a visual interpreter: he engages our beliefs through our eyes, so that we can start to think and perhaps act.

There is great power in a message that allows us to appreciate a beauty that we are bent on destroying. Eliasson plays with optics, he rustles water and binds light. He is telling the looters to spare what cannot be replaced. In his search for awareness, he acts like a magician full of wonder before the tricks that his design studio (a hundred trans-disciplinary people work for him) pulls out of the hat. That sense of wonder is contagious. I know of very few visitors, old or young, who can resist the charm of walking through an Eliasson trick.

Eliasson in front of the reflection of a transparent mirror, KHZ, 16 January 2020

Symbiosis – a new form of coexistence

Eliasson’s latest endeavor to catch our attention is at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, where the wing that is usually reserved for blockbusters has become an extension of his lab. Under the highfalutin title ‘Symbiotic Seeing’, he is suggesting that the determinism of Darwin’s survival of the fittest leaves too little hope and that, instead, we should find solutions together. Now, that’s knocking a lot of anthropologists on the head! Eliasson espouses the approach of Lynn Margulis, an American evolutionary theorist and biologist, who believed in the importance of symbiotic or cooperative relationships as opposed to competitive ones.

“In the light of the climate emergency, it’s become clear that focusing on human beings alone will not give us the expanded sense of empathy for the planet and for non-humans animals that is needed for truly ambitious climate action,”

explains Eliasson in an interview with the show’s curator,
Mirjam Varadinis.

Speaking with eyes

What makes Eliasson a true missionary is his utter sincerity. He really cares and he wants us to too. But instead of instilling a sense of guilt that is too often counter-productive, he is creating experiences to get through armors of indifference. He is aiming arrows not at those who are already convinced by climate change, but those who are open to visual arguments.

Olafur Eliasson, Symbotic seeing, 2020, a site-specific installation for the Kunsthaus Zurich

In Zurich, there is something totally wonderous about the billows of vaporous gasses that swirl above our heads, responding to our presence, to our warmth and breathing. We become aware of the symbiosis between the organic and non-organic, how each and every movement disturbs an order by creating a new one.

The dissolving ceiling highlights the guessing work of meteorologists when, for example, a swirl suddenly escapes from an ocean’s undertow, upsetting the balance in a current, obliging it to sink before it can rise again. We are standing below the metaphor of climate change, ensconced in a soundtrack composed by Hildur Gudnadottir that is played live on a cello by a robotic arm.   

The soulful and vibrant sounds that accompany the ‘Symbiotic seeing’ billows are composed by Hildur Gudnadottir and played by a robotic arm.

“I strongly believe in the importance of having physical, embodied experiences… It matters to engage the senses; art works against apathy.”

Olafur Eliasson

This visitor came away from Zurich with a strong sense of individual responsibility: everything I do, or don’t do, has an impact on my environment. The prevailing attitude that it’s already too late and that nothing can be done flies out the window when Eliasson invites us to admire what nature has given us and to think about what we can do collectively, including with non-human organisms, to mitigate the destruction of our eco-system.

My original inclination to be scathing of Olafur Eliasson’s supra-mediatic presence has been tempered by the thought that he is really getting a message across. Although I don’t see all of his work as art – as he claims – I do believe he is an artist. He is making visible what nature has provided and that we cannot afford to lose.

In September 2019 Olafur Eliasson was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for climate action by the United Nations Development Programme.

Olafur Eliasson: Symbiotic seeing

17 January to 22 March 2020

Kunsthaus Zurich

Kunsthaus Zurich Instagram

Eliasson, Algae, 2020, shows the
outside world upside down (there are hundreds of theses lenses).


Eliasson Zurich

Eliasson research Map

Black Out

On 23 January & 6 February ‘Black Out’ (open until 11 pm) will allow visitors to visit the Kunsthaus collection with only the light created by Little Sun, a solar-powered lamp in the shape of a sun-flower destined to bring light to populations that are still off the electricity grid. The lamp is another Eliasson studio invention that has so far produced more than a million Little Suns (alas all made of plastic). Part of the proceeds of this action will go to the Little Sun project.

Exhibition catalogue

‘Olafur Eliasson: Symbiotic Seeing’ (Snoeck-Verlag, 160 pages, CHF 39), wrapped in paper, not plastic, offers thought-provoking insight into the development of the exhibition and brings together texts that served as inspiration for both the concept and the new works. Authors include the art historian Caroline A. Jones, feminist and historian of the natural sciences Donna J. Haraway, evolutionary theorist and biologist Lynn Margulis, and the philosopher Timothy Morton. There is also an interview between curator Mirjam Varadinis and Olafur Eliasson.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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