Olafur Eliasson: My ambition is to make Versailles empower everyone

Published on June 10, 2016
  • Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Waterfall"

    Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Waterfall"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

  • Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Your sense of Unity"

    Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Your sense of Unity"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

  • Olafur Eliasson "Versailles "Fog Assembly"

    Olafur Eliasson "Versailles "Fog Assembly"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

  • Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Glacial Rock"

    Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Glacial Rock"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

  • Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "The Curious Museum"

    Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "The Curious Museum"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

  • Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Solar Compression"

    Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "Solar Compression"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

  • Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "The gaze of Versailles"

    Olafur Eliasson, Versailles "The gaze of Versailles"

    © Photo: Anders Sune Berg © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson: My ambition is to make Versailles empower everyone Place d'Armes 78000 Versailles fr

It all started with an artistic father, a teenage dream to become a breakdancer and an art book that made him wonder. Today the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is making us wonder through his own art – and his latest place to do that is at the Château de Versailles in France.

Visit the exhibition from June 7th to October 30th, 2016.

INTERVIEW Magnificent rooms with gold leaf decorations, gorgeous ceilings and breathtaking mirror effects. The Château de Versailles was made to impress – and it still does. It started as the scene of kings and later gave room for important world decisions that inflicts on all of us.

This summer the renowned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who recently was made Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by France, makes history meet contemporary art with his exhibition in the splendid surroundings of Versailles – we took the chance to ask him about art and his work at the château.


You have made exhibitions world wide, several times in France, what made you say yes to the exhibition at Versailles?

"I am always interested in exhibiting in places that may not seem to be the usual art venues, places where people might not be expecting to encounter works of contemporary art. I also think there is a tendency to see a place like Versailles as static, unchanging; encountering contemporary art in that environment can be an incredible experience for many people. It can help them realize that Versailles is a living place and to see that their own contribution to the place has significance.

Versailles is significant not only for France, but also for the world. We often reduce it to Louis XIV and the seventeenth/eighteenth century, but if you think about it, so many important events have taken place there: the composition of the declaration of the rights of man, the two treaties of Versailles, and the establishment of the League of Nations. So it is actually also linked with many of the ideals that we still hold important today."

How was it to work on a project that were to fit in those historic surroundings?

"I always take the surroundings into account. A site with such a long history and with such powerful imagery like Versailles of course raises other challenges than a white cube, but I try to interact with the frame instead of seeing it as a constraint.

One of the special things about Versailles is that it was built with the eye in mind. It was a place of constant observation. If you were a part of the court, you had to be ever vigilant that you were adhering to the strict social norms of the time.

The Baroque architecture of the palace served to heighten visibility, so that you could always be observed. In a sense, it was a stunning instrument of power for the king.


Today, however, we look at Versailles differently, and when I visit there, I ask myself: how do we approach this site as visitors? What does it do to us? My ambition is to make Versailles into a place that empowers everyone. It invites visitors to take control of the authorship of their experience instead of simply consuming and being dazzled by the grandeur."

How did you prepare for the exhibition?

"Normally, I work together with my studio for about two years or more to plan an exhibition, but for Versailles we did not have as much time, so this has been a very intense process. Fortunately, I have a strong team and good people around me, so when I come up with an idea there is a lot of muscle that goes into realizing it.


For Versailles, we did research in the studio into its design, history, and cultural significance, but for me, the physical experience of the place is extremely important, so I travelled there and walked around the premises and through the palace. I even went there at night, when it was empty, to take photographs and gain inspiration."

What has been the biggest challenge in your work with the exhibition?

"Water has long been important for Versailles, but it is also a challenge. Making sure there is enough water for Waterfall and Fog assembly required enormous planning and logistical arrangements."

What will we experience as visitors?

"There is a series of subtle spatial interventions with mirrors and light inside the palace. The installations in the gardens use fog and water to amplify the feelings of impermanence and transformation. The artworks make the formal design of the gardens become more malleable and liquid while referring back to an idea that landscape architect André Le Nôtre's was unable to realise: the placement of a waterfall along the axis of the Grand Canal."


Three quick ones about art

What put you at the track of becoming an artist?

"My father was an artist as well as a cook. In my childhood I spent the summer with him in Iceland, and I spent a lot of time learning how to draw very well at a young age. Later, as a teenager, I wanted to become a breakdancer, but then I realized that breakdance and art are the same – they both deal with the body and space."

How do you remember your first encounter with art?

"I remember seeing a reproduction of Robert Rauschenberg's Monogram (1955–59) in one of my father's art books; I was so amazed by this artwork, and I could not stop wondering why the artist had put a tyre around a goat. Years later, I finally saw the work at the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm, where I could really appreciate its significance."

What is art to you – and what should it do?

"I believe that art is a tool for shaping reality. When you step into an art exhibition, you are not stepping out of reality and into the art museum; you are stepping closer to reality. This is because culture is deeply part of society. It acts as a kind of ethical engine within our society, offering one of the few sites where we can come together and disagree, and this is not only acceptable, but it is an integral part of the art experience. It acts as a forum in which we can negotiate reality together." 

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