Thoughts On: Olafur Eliasson's 'Riverbed'

Riverbed : Olafur Eliasson, 2014

Riverbed was a site-specific installation by Olafur Eliasson at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The piece comprised of a tiny river running through an alien or prehistoric-looking landscape of small stones, chunks of lava and basalt. Riverbed was part of Eliasson’s first solo show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art from 2014-2015. Viewers began their journey by walking through corridors with the windows and floor covered up by rough wooden boards, before entering the installation space at the end of the water and traversing upstream through the winding landscape of loose stone. 
Eliasson developed Riverbed in direct response to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and what it represents as a building: carrying the weight of it’s history and prestige as an institution; situated in Scandinavian country; epitomising Scandinavian design and what a museum means in the context of the world. The essential conflict within the work is that the Museum is usually a Painting Museum, organised and laid out in a conventional way, and the landscape Eliasson has thrown into the space takes it’s organisation from gravity - as if the rocks have flowed through quite naturally. Eliasson often creates challenging interventions in public spaces, such as Green River: an intervention dying rivers bright green using a water soluble dye called Uranine, which was carried out in various locations worldwide from 1998 - 2001. 
On first glance Riverbed resembles a place perched somewhere between the landscape of Monseratt and the Namibian Ghost town Kolmanskop, human landscapes that have been smothered by lava and sand respectively. But there is also a peaceful element to this scene, the gentle trickling of the running water and crunch of the stones as people walk on them providing a soothing background ambiance. This was a deliberate choice by Eliasson who looks at this piece as a cross between a Japanese contemplative garden and Pompeii after the lava flow. 
Riverbed : Olafur Eliasson, 2014
Without the running water, except for the movements of the visitors, the landscape would be static. By including the water he has provided movement and flow to the installation, helping guide visitors through the space from one room to the next. But with the water, he has left a big gap of ambiguity in the story of the space, as you do not know whether the water has left the riverbed or whether it is coming back to engulf the stones and landscape again. 
A conflict of disconcertion and “anything goes” is an integral part of PostModernism and Contemporary Art and Eliasson has deliberately chosen to create a landscape which challenges people. Principally this challenge is physical as the stones are unfixed and visitors are forced to adjust their mode of walking in order to traverse through the installation. In this way the interaction of visitors is integral to the success of the piece.
Riverbed : Olafur Eliasson, 2014
Fundamentally in this work Eliasson poses the question of whether the museum is part of the world or just a picture of it, and quite removed from reality. He believes that “the way in which we take in the world is cultural, not natural” and he seeks to inform us that what is real is up to us as viewers. In this instance, by placing the outdoors indoors, he has created a conflict between perceived naturalism and order. Then by further manipulating the sound and texture of the light, shows us not only that none of this is real, but by extension nothing is. So in the same way that we are able to adjust our mode of understanding of the situation, and mode of walking to cross the uneven landscape of Riverbed we are also able to adjust our mode of being in order to feel connected to what we see. So therefore the truth of what we look at is entirely in our own power, the museum and the art are on entity, but it is up to us how we choose to engage with it.
For further reading check out Eliasson's website and the website of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
This piece of writing was prepared for a peer seminar which took place earlier this week.

Popular Posts