Why did Olafur Eliasson turn these rivers green?

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Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, The Northern Fjallabak Route, Iceland, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, The Northern Fjallabak Route, Iceland, 1998

Published: October 14, 2019

Last updated:

Introduction

Next March, just like any other month of March, the Chicago Plumbers will dye the city’s river green. They have been doing this since 1962, in loving memory of St. Patrick, celebrating an icon in the history of Ireland and Chicago. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson mounted another similar project, but with a whole different thing in mind.

The Green River Series

For this monochromatic intervention, Olafur and his assistant used Uranine, a non-toxic, water-soluble dye to test ocean currents. Eliasson started this project in 1996 when he was living in the studio, looking at a river.

This art project would eventually turn six different rivers green, including the ones in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Bremen, and Stockholm. The visual effects of the dyed river changed from city to city. It was very different in Los Angeles, where concrete bridges mostly obstructed views of the river. People hardly noticed the change.

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Bremen, Germany, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Bremen, Germany, 1998, photo: Helmut Wieben

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Los Angeles, 1999

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Los Angeles, 1999

The meaning of the project

The hardest bit of this practice is that it was unannounced and hence ended up sparking a hot debate in almost every locale. Though Eliasson had one only goal in mind: He wanted to bring viewers unwittingly into a new relationship with the environment and the surrounding.

As explained in the book Chromaphilia: The story of Color in Art by Stella Paul, the artist used color to draw viewers unconsciously into a new relationship with the surrounding. Eliasson notes that most of the individuals are entirely disconnected from their environments, especially those in the urban space.

Olafur Eliasson - The green river series, 1998, The Menil Collection, Houston, 2004

Olafur Eliasson – The green river series, 1998, The Menil Collection, Houston, 2004, photo: Oren Slor

The role of the audience

With each installation, public involvement is a central piece that unfolded differently. Paul writes in Chromaphilia that observing marvels in a whole changing world is not the same as perceiving art in a prescribed setting, such as museums or art galleries.

This was to describe how Eliasson wanted to capture the entire difference in a unique way, which would later bring in new viewers unfamiliar with arts specific contexts and subtexts.

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, The Northern Fjallabak Route, Iceland, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, The Northern Fjallabak Route, Iceland, 1998

Green River, Stockholm, 2000

A good example of this phenomenon is downtown Stockholm. According to Olafur, downtown Stockholm is so unassailable and sublime in a way that it looks like an artificial display. The city river seems like a picture-postcard perfect. The inhabitants don’t regard the river as a flowing, dynamic natural force. Olafur Eliasson set out to make Stockholmers take notice and at the same time, make the river present again, using intense green dye.

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Reactions

When Olafur in Stockholm implemented the whole idea, newspapers features the intensely changed rivers on front pages. The majority of the media houses featured the photos and at the same time, explained the change in color. Unknowingly, reporters blamed leaking fluid from a government heating system. They assured the public there was nothing to worry about, which in this context was true. The green in the water had everything to do with art and nothing to do with leaks.

In Stockholm, Sweden, the effect was felt because the river flows through the city. For this reason, the pedestrians were alarmed by the color. They were convinced that the city’s water was tainted. Most of the city dwellers were overwhelmed by panic and for this reason, Eliasson abandoned these guerilla-art interventions in 2001.

The radical visual effects of the dyed water lasted only for hours, and after the city was back to work, the majority of them understood the whole idea. It helped some to reconnect with nature and the urban spaces they are living in.

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Stockholm, 2000

Analysis

Eliasson said that the city was paused for some time but later became active again. According to him, the green in the water was not a big deal; the big deal was how the water looked before and after. Understanding the past and the future of something needs some time. The vehicle for this thinking was the green color.

Eliasson sought to inspire the connection and the relationship between participants and an irrelevant space. The green river sought to bring back the lost growly of rivers and at the same time, bring back the connection with the city residents.

It is very unusual to see how the residents reacted to the green river and the way they talked about it. It is also an excellent observance to see how they feel about the connection with the river and their natural surroundings.

Green River, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranin, water, Tokyo, 2001

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Tokyo, 2001

1 min 24 sec

Green River, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Moss, Norway, 1998

Green River, Los Angeles, 1999

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Los Angeles, 1999

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Los Angeles, 1999

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Los Angeles, 1999

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Los Angeles, 1999

Green River, Bremen, 1998

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Bremen, Germany, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Bremen, Germany, 1998, photo: Helmut Wieben

Olafur Eliasson - Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Bremen, Germany, 1998

Olafur Eliasson – Green river, 1998, uranine, water, Bremen, Germany, 1998, photo: Helmut Wieben

Related works

In 2014, Eliasson fabricated a river to intervene with the space inside a museum, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The act blurred the boundary between the natural worlds and the manmade one. His work at the museum transformed the museum’s gallery space into a rocky and rugged landscape of the Danish coast.

It was an exhibition of a winding river that was flowing through the galleries. The visitors were free to choose their path as they explored the immerse environment. The Riverbed eschewed the behavioral and intellectual conversations associated with the museum by inviting visitors to take control of their experiences.

Olafur Eliasson - Riverbed, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, 2014-2015

Olafur Eliasson – Riverbed, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, 2014-2015

In yet another installation, the Mediated Motion, Eliasson installed a pond with duckweed floating on its surface in a museum. This work too, was created to explore the relationship between the audience and nature.

Olafur Eliasson - The mediated motion, 2001, Kunsthaus Bregenz

Olafur Eliasson – The mediated motion, 2001, Kunsthaus Bregenz

All images: Olafur Eliasson Studio unless otherwise noted.

 

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