Where can we draw the line between nature and culture? And how do we as individuals fit into the relationship between the two? Since the early 1990s Olafur Eliasson has been making installations and series of photographs that consistently address such questions. His works consider the problems of representing and perceiving natural phenomena. To make them, he has constructed a waterfall in a museum courtyard, grown edible mushrooms on rotting tree trunks, and cut a hole in a gallery roof, allowing a disk of sunlight to move across the floor. Each process is put in motion through basic mechanisms and simple materials—sunlight, water, ordinary garden hoses—that are plainly visible to spectators. The processes can unfold very slowly, allowing viewers time to contemplate what Eliasson characterizes as a “discrepancy between the experience of seeing and the knowledge or expectation of what we are seeing.”
By re-creating natural phenomena within or around artificial sites, Eliasson exposes moments of disjuncture between reality and representation. In this context, his use of photography is apt. As a medium, photography is especially relevant to explorations of the dialectic between nature and artifice, representation and reality. Eliasson considers his photographs as sketches for his installations and does not exhibit the two bodies of work together. Usually arranged in a grid format, these landscape “studies” show natural phenomena, such as rivers, caves, and glaciers, mostly in Iceland. Eliasson intentionally selects points of view that highlight viewers' bodily relations to the pictured scenes, choosing disembodied aerial shots or close-ups that reinforce the artist's own presence. When exhibited as a series, the individual images create a cumulative sense of the terrain and the slow progression of geological activity, such as glaciers melting or continental plates shifting. Eliasson ultimately foregrounds our own presence in the face of these colossal changes, and his re-creations and interventions upon natural phenomena are a means of investigating perception itself.