The Curious Desert: Indoor Works

The exhibition includes a series of meditative light installations, geometric models, photo series, watercolours and a sprawling research map inside the National Museum of Qatar.

Please note that a portion of this installation contains flashing lights that may cause discomfort and/or trigger seizures.

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These artworks, like their outdoor counterparts, ask how we use vision and movement to make sense of our worlds; to make invisible phenomena visible and palpable; and to collect knowledge, engage in critical reflection, and construct cultures and worlds based on the stories that we live each day.

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A schematic floorplan of the exhibition's indoor galleries

Room 1

The artwork Your sooner than later, 2020, greets you to The curious desert. This radically analogue film, as the artist calls it, develops and vanishes in a slow continuum of ever-changing shapes, colours, light, and shadows, appearing constantly new. The origin of the light and the objects that produce the patterns – motors, mirrors, filters, and lenses – are visible behind the screen. Eliasson has long been fascinated by optical devices. Over the years he has collected many lenses as part of his investigations into perception and the qualities of light. The lenses in this artwork have been removed from their normal use as instruments of observation and recording. Instead, they have been treated as material to create something of beauty. The artwork is dependent upon the physical encounter between you, the viewer, and the artwork in the here and now.

‘My artworks strive to embody transformation rather than stability and being’, the artist writes. The curious desert ‘is not a stable representation or a model of reality; it is reality. Your experience of it changes with the time you spend in it’.

Room 2

Over the years, Eliasson has returned again and again to Iceland, the country his family is from, in order to explore the its cultural and natural landscapes with his camera. This ongoing, ambitious venture – almost cartographical in its scope – has resulted in approximately eighty photo series to date and a wealth of individual photographs of glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, volcanoes, and caves, among other things. He displays the photo series in grids, as typologies, each devoted to a specific element of the country’s environment. Often the same phenomenon is recorded in various settings, or else a single object is documented from different perspectives. This approach emulates a quasi-scientific taxonomy and comparison among specimens – not as the only way of engaging with the subject of the image but as one approach to it and how we relate to it.

Far from merely documenting the terrain, Eliasson’s vibrant images reflect on our relationship to nature, the physical spaces in which we exist, and the body’s felt motion through space.

The series exhibited here were selected by the artist with the landscape of Qatar in mind. He sees a particular productive juxtaposition between the location of Iceland and Qatar, both of which exist at environmental extremes. ‘Although they could not be more different, the sandy landscape of Qatar and the lava fields of Iceland’, Eliasson says, ‘are in a certain sense connected. They both experience extreme temperatures; they are both deserts. They are both fragile and vulnerable landscapes.’

Room 3

The sculptural works exhibited in this gallery reflect many of the central themes of Eliasson’s artistic practice over the years. The shapes and forms derive from the on-going geometrical research conducted by the artist together with his team at Studio Olafur Eliasson, in Berlin, Germany. Eliasson’s interest in these complex forms – in polyhedrons, spheres, and curves – stems from a desire to find alternatives to the dominant, orthogonal thinking of modern architecture, art, and design. New models of design and construction, he hopes, can counteract the numbing of our senses. Light plays an important role in his artistic practice as well, since it is the very condition of visual perception. The quality, tone, and intensity of light fundamentally affect how we see and respond to the world. Presented together in The curious desert, these artworks ‘speak’ not only individually but also across the gallery space to one another, each model-like artwork adding contextual resonance to its neighbour.

Situated in front of a window at one end of the gallery, Algae window, 2020, is a composition of glass spheres of various sizes. The artwork closely resembles the structure of one type of the single-celled algae known as diatoms. Found around the world in oceans and waterways, these tiny organisms produce a great deal of the planet’s oxygen and remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. They are characterised by complexly patterned frustules, or shells, made out of silica, which exhibit exquisite symmetry and geometrical complexity. The artwork was inspired by Eliasson’s interest in the more-than-human, a major topic explored in the research map.

Room 4

Broad bands of colour crawl across the walls of this circular room, wrapping visitors in a vibrant installation of ever-changing fields of light. The circular construction responsible for The living lighthouse, 2023, contains panes of coloured glass, colour filters, and shutters that turn steadily on motors as they are illuminated by spotlights from within. The colourful shadows move along the walls, overlap, and give rise to secondary and tertiary hues. Visitor’s silhouettes dance among the waves of light and colour, causing new shades and forms to cascade about the room. The disorienting curtain of moving light incorporates the walls and surrounding space into the artwork, transforming the exhibition gallery from a container for art into an object of attention in itself.

This 360-degree light installation connects to the outdoor artworks located near Al-Thakhira Mangrove Nature Preserve, especially to the Orientation lights for rising seas, 2023, a group of five lamps distributed among the twelve pavilions whose directional lights divide the landscape into distinct light regions.

Room 5

Each of these three, related artworks – Object defined by activity (now), Object defined by activity (soon), and Object defined by activity (then) – consists of a small water fountain erupting directly from the black, cylindrical plinths. Stroboscopic lamps, placed immediately above the plinths, illuminate the jets of water in rapid, rhythmic bursts of light, producing the illusion of static sculptures suspended fleetingly in mid-air.

Akin to the way photography arrests the fluidity of passing time and the continuity of motion, these stroboscopically illuminated fountains provide a glimpse of the impossible space of the present. The resulting shapes reveal the curves and geometry underlying the movements of the water in gravity, relating aesthetically to the geometrical sculptures and the chance drip paintings on view in the other galleries.

Room 6

The circular artworks exhibited in this gallery were created by simple machines installed in Eliasson’s outdoor artistic laboratory, near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Forest. The works were created by machines housed in three separate pavilions at the site. Solar-drawing observatory (Large spheres) and Solar-drawing observatory (Small spheres) use sunlight and lenses to burn marks on steadily rotating sheets of paper, while Saltwater-drawing observatory comprises two machines that mix lagoon water with pigment and pendulums driven by the wind.

The artist has been creating drawing machines since 1998, a project he began in collaboration with his father, Elias Hjörleifsson, who was an artist, sailor, and cook. Eliasson’s drawing machines generally use ink, paint, or coloured pencils and are controlled by aleatory elements, such as natural phenomena or vibrations from sound waves or motion, to create markings on circular sheets of paper or canvas.

Outdoor Works

In addition to the works on view at the National Museum of Qatar, The curious desert includes a series of twelve outdoor pavilions near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Nature Preserve.

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Research map

The Research map – an artwork in progress – was once a pin board of ideas, no more than a few square metres in size, used by a few members of Studio Olafur Eliasson. As it became more central to Olafur Eliasson’s thinking, he decided to create several expanded versions of the pin board for museum visitors. Over time it has grown to some thirty-five metres in length through the multi-year work of the studio research team. Despite its vast scope here at the National Museum of Qatar, the Research map is not, and does not aspire to be, comprehensive or complete.

Although it is organised alphabetically by concepts, the Research map is meant to be approached non-linearly. You can start anywhere along the wall you like. It is a space of micro-storytelling, where seemingly unrelated contents vibrate next to each other and create new meaning. We hope you, visitor and reader, bring your own views and associations to the map.

Find out more about the twenty-six concepts featured on the Research map.

Research Map Sources