Spectacular feats of light, impossible-to-fathom geometrical structures, and immersive, sensorial experiences characterize the work of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, an artist who mines the gap between perception, illusion and the nature of reality. With its fluted, multifaceted surface that emits light in a dazzling kaleidoscopic pattern on the walls surrounding it, Black Activity Sphere embodies all of these aspects. Behind the brilliant display of light and shadow, Eliasson participates in a long history of artists including Leonardo da Vinci, who innovated upon technology and helped visualize the internal structures of the larger world and universe. As art historian Pamela Lee explains, “Eliasson’s emphasis on active corporeal vision is but one of the means by which he upends ingrained visual habits and models of perception that may limit sight and insight. His works often take on the enduring illusionistic tools that art and art history have refined since the Renaissance to structure and codify the variety and appearance of the visible world: such classical principles as Albertian one-point perspective, Euclidian geometry, and Cartesian coordinate systems, all of which formalize an essentially optical (as opposed to haptic [or aural]) relationship between viewer and viewed” (P. Lee, “Your Light and Space,” in Time Your Take: Olafur Eliasson, San Francisco, 2007, p. 16). Eliason attributes his spheres to his fascination with “geometry and partial to all things circular and spherical. They have this powerful, almost cosmic dimension (O. Eliason, “Interview with artist Olafur Eliasson,” Feb. 16, 2015, Design Boom, http://www.designboom.com/art/olafur-eliasson-interview-artist-designboom-02-16-2015/ [Accessed Sept. 8, 2016]). Indeed, Black Activity Sphere reorients the relationship between the viewer and her place in the universe.
Black Activity Sphere is one of the first works of its kind created by Eliason and is anticipated by the artist’s ambitious The Weather Project. Installed in the winter of 2003 for the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall, visitors to the museum were confronted by the intense yellow glow of a sun scaled to the museum and bathed in the warm orange haze created by the projection of light across space. The project was a spectacular illusion; all who dared to walk up to the sun were exposed to the secret of its construction: 200 plus yellow industrial light bulbs backlit a semicircular screen. Eliasson explains that he “was interested in light from the very beginning because it negotiates strongly with the spatial conditions, which means that it can be an independent object on the one hand, a projection such as a form on a wall, a light projection; yet it can also be the source of light in general, lighting for the entire room” (O. Eliasson, quoted in Your Lighthouse, exh.cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany, 2004, p. 45). Hundreds of thousands of visitors were delighted by this installation, which remains one of the most popular installations in the Tate’s Unilever series, an invitation offered to only the most ambitious, innovative and prestigious artists in the world.
After The Weather Project, Eliasson began to create room-sized installations that positioned sphere-like objects with geometric cut surfaces in the center of a room. Containing an illuminating device, Eliasson’s spheres cast elaborate patterns of shadow and light upon the surrounding walls. One early iteration of the type is Five Fold Sphere Projection from 2004, in which the sphere is positioned upon a tripod and uses the same configuration of lattice-like Ammann lines that he used in his 1998 architectural project, Five Dimensional Pavilion for a park in his native Denmark. By 2005’s Inverted Berlin Sphere, Eliasson would be eliminated the tripod device to instead suspend his spheres from the ceiling, allowing the shadow to be projected uninterrupted by the mechanisms of its installation. The new found ability of the spheres to rotate adding a kaleidoscopic dimension to the experience of the light display. Additionally, moving around the sphere changes one’s perception of the intricate elements that make up its shape.
Over time, Eliasson’s spheres and polyhedra have grown increasingly more elaborate and complex shapes, requiring the artist to collaborate with the Icelandic geometer and architect Einar Thorsteinn to achieve their geometric precision. As Eliasson noted, most of his spheres are actually not spheres but complex polyhedra, or multi-faceted dimensional shape. For him, “the spheres are machines that create space, they [are] space. Some of them contain a light source inside that projects fragmented light out into the space where they are hanging, like a map projection. So it is not only, or primarily, the physical object in the space that interests me, but the way the light and the shadows and the colors claim and create space together. They perform architecture, you might say” (O. Eliason, ibid.).
In addition to these architectural dimensions, Eliasson’s spheres evoke philosophical considerations of a significantly larger scale than the installation. The artist continues, “I like to think of the spheres as models for planets. I’m interested in the fact that our recent move towards the anthropocene?towards acknowledging, that is, the impact of human activity on the ecological systems and atmospheres that surround us?has shifted our relationship to all things planetary. We no longer look at the earth from a distance from a disembodied, Google Earth perspective: We know that we are inseparable from it. . . . The spheres are about looking at the world and at yourself at one and the same time” (O. Eliasson, Ibid.). Eliasson continues, “These ideas of seeing-yourself-sensing or sensing-yourself-seeing, they are about trying to introduce relationships between having an experience and simultaneously evaluating and being aware that you are having this experience. It’s not about experience versus interpretation but about the experience inside the interpretive act, about the experience itself being interpretive. You could say that I’m trying to put the body in the mind and the mind in the body” (O. Eliasson, interview with C. Gilbert, ‘Olafur Eliasson by Chris Gilbert’, in BOMB 88, Summer 2004, n.p.).
In this way, Eliasson’s project parallels the automatonic orrery, the moving planetary models made by astronomers since the early eighteenth century to demonstrate the movement of the planets. Eliasson succeeds in creating the sense that one is watching the sun from the position outside of the earth rather from our earth-bound perspective, reorienting its viewers to the scale of the universe.