When Nature invades the Museum

Olafur Eliasson looks into optics by revealing the trick and displays the devices that generate a light-related effect

Olafur Eliasson, Limbo lamp © 2005 Olafur Eliasson

A very shallow enquiry on the origins of the museum takes us back to the 17th century, when the Wunderkamern gathered in small cabinets rich collections of oddities from nature and artifacts from remote places in the world. Nature is hence closely linked to the birth of the museum institution and the characteristic display of the specimens in shelves that prevailed from the 18th century up to quite recently.

Some of the avant-gardes at the beginning of XXth century turned their back on the museum display establishment. In particular, the Futurists detested museums as an obsolete institution and anachronistic in relation to the progress of technology and society. “The windows of a perfumer’s shop, with little boxes and packets, bottles and future-color triplicate phials, reflected in the extremely elegant mirrors” were much more appealing that exhibitions according to Giacomo Balla in his manifesto The Futurist Universe (1919). Nevertheless, it was 50 years later when the relationship between art and nature changed significantly. Land artists abandoned physically museums and art galleries to make their artworks in nature. Shortly after, Reclamation Art put forward multidisciplinary art projects in landfills and wasted spaces after industrial or mining activities. At the same time, during the 80s and 90s, we find the first significant public art interventions that draw attention to the highly developed urban areas at nature’s expense. Time Landscape by Alan Sonfist (1978) and Wheat Field – A Confrontation by Agnes Denes (1982) are major examples, just to mention two in New York City. More recently, sculpture parks have resulted in a return to the musealization -in this case nature itself, filled with artworks that have little -or nothing- to do with the environment.

This very short history of the love-hate relationship between art, museums and nature came to my mind after visiting the extraordinary exhibition of James Turrell at the National Art Gallery in Canberra. I thought of artists who address the vast subject of nature from very diverse points of view without sacrificing the exhibition space, but the other way around, they need the institution to give meaning to their work. These artists finish with the idea that all art related to nature is incompatible with art galleries and museums.

James Turrell is a very good example of the use of museums and enclosed spaces to show a kind of artwork whose only component -if that were not enough- is a natural phenomenon, namely light and its effect on our perception. Turrell says “I put you in a situation where you feel the physicality of light”. Indeed in his exhibitions there aren’t any sculptures nor other kind of tridimensional objects but we find ourselves constantly extending our arms as if we could touch something in front of us that it isn’t material, actually. It happens specially in his “Ganzfeld” and “Wedgeworks”.


James Turrell, Virtuality squared 2014. Ganzfeld: built space, LED lights, 800 x 1400 x 1940.5 cm (overall). Collection James Turrell. Image: National Gallery of Australia


James Turrell, Virtuality squared 2014. Ganzfeld: built space, LED lights. 800 x 1400 x 1940.5 cm (overall). Collection James Turrell. Image: National Gallery of Australia

In the same direction Olafur Eliasson looks into optics by revealing the trick and displays the devices that generate a light-related effect. In this way he brings science closer to the public as Limbo Lamp (2005) in the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne. He also introduces natural elements creating artificial natural environments such as in Lava Floor (2002) or, more recently, River Bed (2014) that challenge the visitor’s behaviour. In several occasions, Eliasson has emphasized how important is the role of the museum in the production and dissemination of his art projects.


Janet Laurence, “Stranded”, 2012 © the artist.

From a very different point of view, centred on the decisive role of humans as ecological agents in the newly called Anthropocene era, Australian artist Janet Laurence also acknowledges the function of the exhibition space or, at least, the need of a pre-existent one that contributes to create an atmosphere of reflection around her work. She uses sheer surfaces and display cabinets full of laboratory equipment, plants, rocks and multitude of small objects as a kind of specimens. Laurence’s installations put a twist on the traditional notion of exhibit and the way to address ecological issues in art that not necessarily require outdoors interventions.

Mark Dion closes the circle of this very short selection and takes us back to the time of the “Wunderkamern”. In a recent exhibition he has used the impressive collections of the museums in City of Dresden to question once more the outdated exhibition displays in historic museums that shape our vision of the world. Neukom Vivarium (2006), installed in the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, illustrates the current trend to reconsider the relationship between artists, nature and museums. Dion has specifically designed a greenhouse to reproduce the environmental conditions to keep a nurse log that fell years ago in the woods near Seattle as a living system. An inconsistency, apparently, that exemplifies once more the significance of man’s actions on nature.

By: Paula Llull

More information: James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Janet Laurence, Mark Dion


One response

  1. great post! I love Janet Laurence’s work and never thought of this relation with Olafur Eliasson

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