Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP.
Since his beginnings, Eliasson has always considered cultural institutions as forums that citizens should reappropriate. “I begin a story through my works, but it’s the visitors who finish it through their presence. The work only exists because a spectator experiences it.” But will we see a citizens’ reappropriation of the gardens in the manner of the Nuit Debout movement in Paris? To his detractors, who say his recent work is more like a heartfelt publicity campaign than an artistic gesture (which is supposed to be more radical or courageous), he seems to reply indirectly when he talks about the frenzy he would like his works to provoke. He hopes, for example, that the imposing circular structure that will create a cloud of fine vapour in the Bosquet de l’Étoile “will not only bring forth rainbows and other light-related phenomena but will also encourage the public to run through and around it in a gesture of madness.”
Experiences, sensations, a sense of self consciousness when confronted with natural phenomena − Eliasson’s major themes will all be present, including the theme of exploration, which seems particularly to grip him at Versailles. “I was lucky enough to be able to walk around alone, at night, in the château,” he confides. “I just had a little solar-powered pocket torch that I developed with my studio. I opened hidden doors and went down stairs and along corridors reserved for the servants. The vibrations I felt fed into my artistic intervention.” This exploration inspired a second series of subtle, ephemeral works that will blend in perfectly with the architecture of Versailles. Remaining hazy about the details, Eliasson prefers to outline the main ideas behind his intervention. “It won’t be a question of traditional objects installed on pedestals. Some of them can fit into the palm of your hand. Visitors who aren’t ready to explore Versailles as I did might miss them.” Among the objects he refers to could well be an eye, that of the château itself. “Through my intervention I wanted to bring about a reversal. It’s no longer the spectator looking at Versailles, but Versailles looking at the spectator.” A play of mirrors − a symbol of Versailles if ever there was one − will no doubt be involved. “I wondered what a mirror really sees, what its subconscious might be,” he concludes mysteriously.
This water magician and shaman of modern times is never short of slogans that hit the nail on the head. Especially when it comes to promoting his latest product, the Little Sun lamp with its humanitarian aims (originally intended to come to the aid of poor African countries), the same model that allowed him to discover Versailles by night. “You can buy it in the shop at the château,” he enthuses. “For Ä22, everyone can become a Little Sun King!”
Olafur Eliasson at the palace of Versailles in 2016, 7 June to 30 October.
By Thibaut Wychowanok