Tag Archives: Olafur Eliasson

Project 4.4: Painting without Paint

What does painting without paint mean? In previous parts I looked at painting without brush, painting without gesture and control, painting without a ‘stretching’ support.

Painting without paint could be looked at from multiple perspectives:

  • paint as a material not consisting out of pigment and binder, and with conventional purpose of being used as paint, to paint with, e.g. found materials, urine, blood, skin, soap (materials that have more or less a staining or spatial impact when applied)
  • painting with paint that is different to conventional conceptions of how painting works, i.e. applying color to surfaces, creating illusion of space, playing with space-color relationships (I do consider color as light phenomena getting to our retinal surface of the eye).
  • without relating the material used (paint) to the technique applied (painting). Here I am not sure how this could look like, but perhaps to apply paint in different fashion, or to make a painting with 

Overall, considering the suggested artists to look at, I do believe the focus here is on non-traditional painting materials, i.e. anything but oil, acrylic, watercolor etc paint. Materials that do stain or not, materials that do can create spaces and illusions of space. Materials that are either direct or indirect materials creating through the act of making a ‘picture’ (flat, spatial, temporal, microscopic, cosmic etc.)

Material use seems to be more complex in contemporary art. In the past, the technical challenges and mastery of paint as material and its application to a surface were of main concern (alongside color theory, color matching perspective, and observational accuracy). Today, used materials are less ‘innocent’ and its deferred connotation and relationship in a wider cultural and political context are taking over interpretation and reception of artworks. Materials are associated with power structures, gender identities, environmental impact and consumer culture. My previous works since part 1 could be seen in this context: dog poop bags, packaging materials, shellac solution, or latex. However, I do sense that at that time I didn’t consider the wider context in depth. A more considered focus on one material alongside the process as an artist’s gesture might be the better.

Body fluids as material 

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Oxidation Painting, 1978. He coated canvases with wet copper paint and urinated on them. The following reaction of oxidation of urine oxidizes let the color change. His use of urine and the act of urination was considered as a reaction to one of Jackson Pollock’s attitude, and could be also seen as a male gestural act. 

Other often used body fluid is blood, the most symbolic material for life – as well for threat,  vulnerability. or as menstrual blood as a feminist position (Alvarez, 2015)

Soap as material

Rashid Johnson (b. 1977) and Anxious Men, 2015 (David Kordansky Gallery). He used black soap (a unique Western African cleansing soap) and shea butter (used in cosmetics as a moisturizer or lotion) for his black paintings. He is black and lives in the USA with the legacy of black heritage. I believe that this triple combination would always lead to a racial connotation and statement. Soap as a cleaning agent as a mean of failing to clean-off the black color. I never heard of black soap till I found out that it actually is a unique Western African soap with the color derived from plant ashes. 

Interesting to notice that he was inspired for his work at the show through his visit to the Freud Museum in London and especially the ‘day beds’. He related it to healing, as the material of soap and shea butter would relate to cleansing and made him to state that he ‘always wanted to make an object that you could potentially clean your body with.’ (BBC, 2012)

In another work he elevated the floor to the wall by using wooden floor tiles, burning them with a torch, and making in that was his own charcoal to draw with and into.

Any inanimate object would want to be an artwork – Rashid Johson 

Overall, he pulls from his autobiographic objects, e.g, read books or listened music album, to integrate them into his works. His works, though clearly having from a conceptual point of view a political statement, the visuals and paintings with various materials are conveying a uniform and independent visual language. 

For me the striking aspect is how cultural ordinary objects and materials can be used for painting. The connection between the pictorial and a cultural context is certainly more in the mind of the audience.

Dye as material (appropriated use)

Olafur Eliason (b. 1967) created a the land-art and site-specific project Green River Project (1998 – ) that was ‘installed’ and ‘performed’ across various locations. He put a a green dye used by biologists into various city streams and river to invite the audience to relate to this changing environment of their daily life. My first association when seeing the work was algae, a green surface growth indicating over-nutrition of urban or communal water areas. But as I got this impression only by looking at small images on my small screen devices. seeing the water in real life would certainly would be a different experience (as a dye is different to a material plant body)

He stated that

We tend to see cities and spaces as static images, but in fact they are changing all the time. Sometimes it takes a radical shift to make us aware of this fact.” – Olafur Eliason (The Art Story, 2019)

The coloring of water lasted a few hours, with different reactions from the audience. Eventually , and to overcome possible panic reactions (as by subjective connotations of ‘green colored river’), he moved this land-art experience including maquette of the surrounding nature into gallery spaces. 

Eliason’s project has two key aspects: Land-art and temporality. The focus lays on the encounter itself, the experience of a spatial and temporal phenomena through materiality. With respect to land-art or site-specificity and water I feel reminded of my personal project work for PoP1 related to decay of residential buildings. I was intrigued at that time also by the small canals around the neighborhood, canals originated from the peat cultivation culture for draining the land. Water that is often brownish (from peat) and in summer often green (from algae). A changing environment in colors – to think more about my local area perhaps.

Common materials (found materials)

Phyllida Barlow is using materials typically connected to DIY stores and to outside construction sites, e.g. untitled: shadowplatform, 2018– 2019).

The works of Karla Black (b. 1972) are similar to Eliason’s project site-specific ‘land-art’ explorations of materials and physical space are made from mundane materials and composed site-specific installations that response and reflect on the material characteristics, e.g throwing dry plaster powder across the space and not the floor, with the resulting sculptures having a sense of impromptu performativity. I can relate to her thought of a non-hierarchy between the different materials. In an interview, she mentioned two aspects that I find intriguing:

  • she considers her works as sculptures, pulling from other disciplines as painting, but not installing them at the wall
  • she feels a direct relationship with the material, nearly void of cultural connotations, responding to the intimate relationship with it (though, it would be myth to think that an artist can work ‘innocently’ void of context.

She considers her fragile works as a temporal encounter: 

The fact that the experience of making is allowed to be seen within the finished work of Land Art, its often temporary nature, its site specificity and its scale, as well as the materials themselves, are all things that stay in my mind. – Karla Black (National Galleries Scotland, 2019)

She stated that she wants ‚the work to be attractive, but also for the materials to remain as raw and unformed as possible‘ (ebid). In the video of her Venice Biennale 2011 works, her large scale sculptures seem to expand and fill the room in a similar way as Barlow´s sculptures did at RA, London. The suspended folded plastic sheets seem quite familiar to me, though large scale seem to make the difference as a physical encounter with materiality. There seemed to be some controlled randomness involved in the shown works, rather artefacts than finished works. They are working in the relationship with each other and the viewer. I am wondering how this kind body of work could be possibly shown to my tutor or assessment (similar works perhaps). I do have the impression, that what really matters is the negative space, the space around the objects, space to breathe, space to walk through without barriers. Something to think about deeper when it comes to pre-assessment.

Some of her large scale installations remind me – at much smaller scale though – of my work for A1: paper, crumpled, and placed (see A1 – One Attempt of Failure)

One my inspiring artist, Helen Chadwick (1953-1996) used and appropriated all sort of materials, rose pedals, lotion, chocolate, light, urine, hair etc. (Chadwick, 2004). Due to its temporality of the used materials, she mostly preserved the work through photography.that became the work in itself and was installed in different way: on glass or steel with backlight (e.g. Self Portrait, 1991 or the series ?Wreath to Pleasure, 1992-93), as plaster cast (Piss Flower, 1991-92)



  • Any material can be of use by exploring its unique characteristics. Contextual notes would come afterwards (but certainly not to avoid during making as well – the idea of ‘innocent’ un-learning as we discussed at our study day Thinking Through Art  might be just a myth).
  • Context can lead to specific materials. Although, the making and my work could go of a tangent during the exploration and making, embracing intrinsic visual languages of the material used.
  • I very much like found objects, paper, tissue and plastic – from different origins
  • Overall, I do have a sense that some materials would better work when embedded into other materials (e.g.Johnson), some to expand the typical use at larger and public scale (e.g. Eliason), and other just as they are (e.g. Black)
  • Temporality of used materials can be either embraced through on-site installations (e.g. Eliason, Black), embedded with other materials (e.g. Johnson), or documented through photography that becomes the work in itself (e.g. Chadwick)
  • What would be my materials for painting? Are they easily available? Do they need to purchase? And how to interact with them? Should I just take one or two materials that cross my way? Or to think deeper how material relates to context, e.g. to my parallel project on medical imaging and the transparent body? Certainly, it will be a physical engagement with material in space.


  • Featured image: SJSchaffeld, 2019 – work from Project 2


read more

Documentary: Olafur Eliasson ‘Space is Process’ (DVD)

Olafur Eliasson is not an artist, it is large studio team exploring and creating all kind of works in context of art. I was excited to watch his the film ‘Space is Process’ on DVD, hoping to get different viewpoints on space and process, that seem so relevant to my own work and way of working.
He stated in the film
“It is not about me, it is about you” – Olafur Eliasson
Eliasson is known for his interrogation of space and light, our sensual responses to how these interact as a subjective experiences. As stated that the body makes sense out of space (dimension, scale) and he considers his working in already existing spaces as different to ‘a neutral, empty canvas’, as already been charged with ‘meaning and intentionalities’. One of his aims is ‘to do something having an impact’.
The film follows a few projects of Eliasson and his team with more end-to-end narrative of the ‘New York Waterfalls‘ installation 2008. A major project resembling at time more a construction work project. But at the end, it is still about him and his celebrity status.
For him, it is important that that his ‘values and qualities I believe in are communicated throughout the project’. Quite an art director position, or in other companies the director position in his team. He described his way of working as ‘having others to take care of something, I am  joining, get inspired and then we work from there’.
With regards to ‘Waterfalls’, Eliasson expresses his belief in inclusivity of a space, asking what a space, city and nature is about. With the dominance of water and the Hudson River in New York City, he applies his conception of environmental sensitivity to it, not only considering water as a surface, but to give it volume aka bringing out of the surface into 3D space. By that it would be more engaging to the  senses and be more than a picture. The spectator’s feeling would be different than just thinking and see a painted waterfall.  Further, he considers this intervention not only as a questioning of space but also of time, what is history and what is now.
I feel the question around how we interact and make sense of our surrounding, a spatial dimension, intriguing. Eliassson invites people to participate, to experiment with the space and to construct its own subjective meaning, and to include the spectator into the objecthood. An objecthood quite in the tradition of Fried’s critique of literalism as the experience encountered by an subject makes the experience itself part of the object. For him, the world becomes negotiable. It is up to us, the spectators to get involved.
“One unique quality of the language art speaks, it doesn’t take the world as granted, reality – constructed, thus re-negotiatable” – Olafur Eliasson
He is very much in exploring those aspects through his works and avoids to be personally part of the work.. He explained in the film that topics as his origin in Iceland are existentialist subjects and ‘there is no sense in communication with other people questions of existentialism‘. This feels strange to me, as if he would like to separate his personal life from his business structured ‘art’ life. A notion that sound quite familiar for me from my corporate background. And raising the question to me what kind of artwork or artist or impact in the artworld I would like to be or to make.
Another interesting aspect I captured in the film is his experience that ‘a work of art can embrace different people having different experiences at the same time’. It is his ambition to show that difference at the same time is actually a good thing, that one can be an individual as well a member of a group. It reminds me strongly of Deleuze and his conception of ‘Assemblages’.
Further, Eliasson elaborated the purpose of a studio and the question of balance between form and content.  The latter, he answered his viewpoint of form succeeding and resulting from content.  Quite a conceptual approach to artwork. Re studio, he sees it as am amplifier for his at times off-site responses to  nature or city. The studio would amplify those responses and another idea would eventually be generated. Although, he acknowledged that the studio could be restrictive as well due its structural constraints, and sees in organising workshop a way out.
Last not least, I found his view on exhibitions and retrospectives quite enlightening: to see shows not as showing pf past works but as a show of new experiences and installations, though the physical work itself could have been made ten years ago.


I enjoyed watching the film and Eliasson’s viewpoints and intentions behind his and his team works. I felt a bit intimidated by the extensive work efforts of his studio reminding me at times of construction and engineering projects. Perhaps, memories from my corporate past, not all pleasant, resurfaced and looking at life from a different, artist perspective (and ‘smaller’ one as well, economically speaken).
The expression of engaging the viewer’s into the work, not in a didactic way, but in a way to make one own’s subjective sense, resonates well. Whatever, the artist or designer has in mind, the viewer is processing and acting upon her/his own way. And there is no one better or worse.
I looked briefly at the artist’s website and the first glance went to a video, called ‘Wasserfarben‘  (2:48 min) on the frontpage, Eliasson describing is experience with drawing as way to understand. and how it related to chance and uncertainty.

  • Olafur Eliasson – Space is process (2011) Directed by: Lundø, H., Jørgensen, J. and Olafur, E. 2011, [DVD], Indigo.
read more
Follow Me

Follow my Learning Blog