Artistic Statement by Olafur Eliasson:
Shadows travelling on the sea of the day is reached by driving through the rugged desert landscape, northwards from Doha, past Fort Zubarah and the village of Ain Mohammed. You may already glimpse the artwork from afar, situated on the horizon like a small informal settlement or industrial site. When you finally approach the artwork on foot, the uncertainty of what you are in fact seeing may stay with you a little while longer. The landscape – a vast, sandy plane dotted with desert plants, traces of animals, and rock formations – extends around you for many kilometres in all directions. Perhaps the shimmering line of the horizon is the artwork’s outer limit.
Yet it is not only you who have journeyed to meet up with the artwork. Its cool, hospitable shadows travel slowly across the sandy ground during the day and more rapidly at dusk and dawn. Above you, in the ceilings fitted with large mirrors, you may also – with the right amount of patience – detect these cyclical journeys.
Looking up, you come to realise that you are, in fact, looking down – at the earth and at yourself. Above and below, sand envelops you, together with anyone else sharing the space. To test what you see, you might extend an arm and wave to yourself or wiggle a foot while looking at your reflection. It is a kind of reality check of your connectedness to the ground. You are at once standing firmly on the sand and hanging, head down, from a ground that is far above you. You will probably switch back and forth between a first-person perspective and a destabilising, third-person point of view of yourself. This oscillation of the gaze, together with the movement of your body, amplifies your sense of presence, while the curving structures seem to vanish into the surroundings, dematerialising and becoming landscape.
If you look at the clusters of sculptural elements unfolding left and right, you may notice a quite extraordinary effect: the array of mirrors connects and perfects what is physically distinct and partial. The mirrors each reflect their own semicircular support, completing them into perfect circles. The neighbouring mirrors reflect the steel structures as well, creating a sea of interconnections. Reflection becomes virtual composition, changing as you move. What you perceive – an entanglement of landscape, sprawling sculptural elements, and visitors – seems hyperreal while still completely grounded.
I hope you will become sensitised to the surroundings as you meander beneath the shady mirrors. Walking slowly – without the protection of a fast-moving, airconditioned vehicle – you may be able to take in a landscape that is not barren and empty but comprises desert animals, plants, and human beings; stories, traditions, and cultural artefacts; wind, glaring sunlight, thick air, and shimmering heat; semicircles and rings; traces and tracks; and curiosity, fatigue, and wonder. Shadows travelling on the sea of the day is a celebration of all that is here; of everything moving through the space at the time of your visit, of your presence within this naturalcultural landscape. It is an invitation to resync with the planet.
Context Statement by Olafur Eliasson:
Updated 29 October 2022
Over the course of my working life as an artist, I have always been a strong believer in collaboration and dialogue. I have approached diverging points of view – or even potential conflicts – in two ways: through the conversations, some public, some private, that I have with commissioners, curators, and collaborators; and directly through my artworks and the conceptual thinking surrounding them. I think art offers a rare opportunity for people from a wide range of backgrounds to share a space – whether in a museum or in public space – while acknowledging both shared interests and differences of opinion and of values.
Shadows travelling on the sea of the day provides areas of shade where visitors – locals, residents of Qatar, art lovers, archaeologists, and tourists – can gather and meet up in the hot desert surroundings. Looking up at the mirrored undersides of the artwork and around at the artwork in the desert surroundings, they see themselves, the other visitors, and the environment in which they are standing entangled in the reflections above.
For me, working in Qatar has meant entering into a context where I am confronted with values that are different from my own – sometimes radically so. I adamantly believe in the right of everyone to express themselves freely, in particular with regard to their gender and sexual orientation, and I am a strong believer in upholding human rights, as outlined by the UN. Entering into a work collaboration in Qatar, I am careful, as an outsider and as a European, to evaluate how I can best support these values. Throughout the installation of Shadows travelling on the sea of the day my team was dedicated to ensuring that all human rights standards were upheld on the building site. This must ultimately become the standard throughout the country.
I first worked in Qatar in 2017, on a presentation of my Little Sun lamps there. Little Sun, which brings solar energy to people living without reliable access to electricity, hosted workshops about sustainability and solar power at a space for contemporary art in Doha, called Fire Station.
Commissioned almost a decade ago Shadows travelling on the sea of the day has taken four years to produce. Why did I accept a commission in Qatar to begin with? I was fascinated by the vast and vulnerable desert landscape and interested in the possibility of working in a different culture from my own. The desert environment is unfamiliar to me but in some sense it shares certain qualities with the Icelandic landscape that I know so well. I focused on making a permanent artwork, with a life expectancy that extends far beyond a single month of football. There is no artistic connection between my sculpture and the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
Why do I continue to believe in that engagement? I think there is great potential for intensified climate action in this part of the world, and Qatar can play a critical role here. The country is predicted to be hit hard by the consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels and increased temperatures. The country is a signatory of the Paris Agreement and, in 2021, signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% in 2030. Yet the wealth of the country is primarily bound up with oil and, not least, liquefied natural gas, some of which Europe, for instance, is keen to import at increased levels. This is a highly complex geopolitical situation in which we are all entangled.
For several years now, I have been considering the carbon footprint of art – artworks are produced, shipped to locations worldwide, installed and de-installed again, and all these activities have a carbon footprint. Since 2020, my studio’s sustainability team has tracked all stages of art-making to improve waste management, reduce travel, and track carbon footprints; and to define ways of investing in sustainable practices. For Shadows travelling on the sea of the day, we are working with an external company to cross-check our calculation of its carbon footprint. Based on this calculation we will allocate funds from the project budget to support local environmental groups that work to preserve Qatar’s natural landscapes.
I hope that the creative collaborations that I am currently nurturing on site in Qatar – and the embodied experiences and space for self-reflection that I strive to offer in my artwork – will provide means for people to meet each other across communities and cultures. The climate crisis requires collective action and an unprecedented level of international cooperation. It is my belief that art can help cultivate the transcultural understanding necessary to tackle this enormous task. I aspire for Shadows travelling on the sea of the day to be a prompt for further public discussion on sustainable practices and climate action – which I am actively working on with the teams at Qatar Museums.