The Invisible Present: Sensory dimension in the installation “Your blind passenger” by Olafur Eliasson

Silveira, Rodolfo Nuno Anes (2019) “O Presente Invisível: dimensão sensorial na instalação “Your blind passenger”, de Olafur Eliasson.” Revista Estúdio, artistas sobre outras obras. ISSN 1647-6158 e-ISSN 1647-7316. 10, (26), abril-junho. 82-92


Based on the analysis of the work “Your blind passenger” by Olafur Eliasson, this article aims to discuss the importance of transitory sensory and synesthetic space in immersive art installations. It speculatively addresses the processes of perception and transmission of objective and subjective reality through synesthetic experience, body observation, incorporation of memory and imagination.

Keywords: Art Installation, Visible-Invisible, Experience, Synesthesia, Imagination


Partindo da análise da obra “Your blind passenger” de Olafur Eliasson, este artigo propõe-se discutir a pertinência do espaço transitório sensorial e sinestésico em instalações artísticas imersivas. De modo especulativo consideram-se os processos de apreensão e transferência da realidade objetiva e subjetiva por meio da experiência sinestésica, da observação corporal, da incorporação de memória e da imaginação.

Palavras chave: Instalação Artística, Visível-Invisível, Experiência, Sinestesia, Imaginação

Why “Your Blind Passenger” by Olafur Eliasson?

Perception, movement, synesthetic experience, the involvement of memory, and the calibration of the senses constitute the temporal gap that we consider the present. The immateriality of such concepts and processes transforms the invisible reality and elevates the artistic work to a higher status than the creator’s own composition. Among the numerous works of Olafur Eliasson (Copenhagen, 1967), “Your blind passenger” stands out for its bold subtractive option to remove (almost) all elements of a possible reality, literally a visible reality. Blind passager is a Danish term for stowaway. A metaphor for the experience in this work: a passenger gets lost and finds himself again (Eliasson 2018:45). The work is thus an exploration of human perception that invites participants to an inner discovery of phenomenological invisibility by meeting the stowaway who travels inseparably with us.

Olafur Eliasson is one of the best known and most influential contemporary artists of our time. In his exhibitions he combines light, shadow, water, fog, movement and color to imitate and recreate the forces of nature, usually resorting to the creation of participatory environments. Examples include the following projects: (1) “The Weather Project” (2003) at the Tate Modern in London, an allusion to global warming that consisted of a giant sun made of 200 lamps arranged in a semicircle, whose light reflected on glass on the ceiling, dissolving a mist of water and sugar that filled the entire museum. As participants faced their reflection, they interacted with the image of themselves by walking through the space enveloped by the mist, sitting down to absorb the heat, and lying down on the floor, forming small, almost choreographic formations with their bodies. In a way, they recognized each other, interacted and observed all the others as one big global composition. An effect to which the author refers with the expression Seeing yourself seeing; (2) “New York City waterfalls” (2008), in which Eliasson (supposedly influenced by Icelandic landscapes) exhibits and explores the temporal interval of a waterfall. Thus, he depicts time with the four artificial waterfalls scattered across the city and offers the viewer a free interpretation of this temporal gap by suggesting the reciprocal relationship between the surrounding space (the city of New York) and the relative time perceived through the falling water. In short, he encourages reflection on time in the “city that never sleeps” In this way, Olafur Eliasson creates art installations that not only question the viewer’s spatial awareness, but also appeal to his phenomenological self-knowledge. He makes speculations about the sublime as a temporary state, a kind of dazzle and surprise.

It is precisely these speculations that we have taken as an occasion to analyze the work “Your blind passenger”, since it offers the possibility of approaching the awakening of other senses in the absence of sight.

  1. From participant to self-observer

The speculative (not empirical) mode of this article represents a fine line in the approach to taxonomy commonly used in the context of art installations of this immersive kind. By partially eliminating the cognitive sense of sight, the art installation proposes to the participant a new reading of the work, one that is able to grasp reality through empirical introspection with the whole body (and its nervous system). Note that the participatory act of the visitor (pre)conditions an external positioning to the proposed experience, that is, he participates in something that is (pre)conditioned and interacts in a cooperative way. An example of this is the art installation “The Weather Project” (2003) mentioned above.

Once participants interpret reality – once objective – in a subjective, personal and unique way, they become observers of themselves and companions of this secret passenger. Note that the act of observation by the participants confirms the author’s subliminal statement: When it comes to immersion, the observational state is more than an objective interpretation of the external installed reality. Because of its artificial nature, the artistic work builds bridges of contact of an abstract nature with the intellect, offering a subjective interpretation of the inner reality of a conscious body, a literal observation of somatic reflexes, synesthetic movements, and memories over which the cognitive visual portal has little influence. If, on the one hand, the time needed to complete a (given) path drives the inner development of reflection, on the other hand, it increases the expectation of seeing and enhances the meaning of the encounter with the artistic object: an experience that therefore goes beyond the intentions (initial thoughts) or the baseline and conceptual meanings of the creator.

Therefore, the role of the viewer is as (or even more) important as that of the artist in the original state: the viewer interprets, imagines, influences, and reconstructs his or her visual space through the prior singular and collective experience that he or she has had through the lens of social culture.

1.1 The device (everything is artifice)

Eliasson’s installation “Your blind passenger” (2010) is inscribed in a tunnel 3.3 meters wide x 2.7 meters high x 96 meters long built in the ARKEN Museum of Morden Art, Ishøj in Denmark (Figure 1). A composition made by: fluorescent lamps, mono-frequency lamps, fans, wood, steel, fabric and plastic.

Figure 1. Din blinde passager, 2010. Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson.
ARKEN Museum of Morden Art, Ishøj, Dinamarca.

Upon entering the tunnel, the participant is immediately enveloped in smoke and partially blinded by a bright light. The vision is reduced to an area of 1.5 meters and the idea of the device (the tunnel) and one’s own body movements disappears. In this way, the artwork allows participants to rely more on the other senses – such as touch and hearing – than on the sense of sight.

To experience “Your blind passenger” one must traverse the entire expanse (pre)defined by Eliasson. Here the author forces the participant (Oiticica) into a dichotomy: seeing the structure and dimension of the tunnel as an artistic object (in the form of a carriage) in a museum is part of the experience of constructing the artwork; and now, inside the tunnel, it is not possible to see, feel, or participate in a way that is outside the work. The suggestion is clear: use a different kind of cognitive tool to approach the artistic object of this installation. It is obvious: you need to participate internally, through the whole body and not only through the sensory and cognitive portal of seeing: the eyes (Figure 2). Seeing is not enough, you must also extensively feel, be: observation gives way to inscription.

Figure 2. Din blinde passager, 2010. Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson.
ARKEN Museum of Morden Art, Ishøj, Dinamarca.

Once the participant physically passes the entrance and accepts the given premises, another dimension of “Your blind passenger” takes place: The participant meets himself (a stowaway of himself).

His interpretation of time and space is now perceived in an internal and highly subjective way; he becomes an observer of himself: The way he cognitively appropriates the work is reflected in his intellect. The search for meaning arises from the previous experiences evoked by the cultural influences and the unique imagination that form the cognitive sphere in which the subject moves, observing himself as he observes the external stimuli and the internal cognitive reflections of the reception of the experiences. In this way, he enters into a contract of self-knowledge and synchronization with his somatic nervous system. Active participation in this fictitious reality reveals certain internal preconditions that enable him to evaluate the everyday reality he experiences.

The inertia of the (floating) smoke stirs with the movement of bodies and “stowaways” in the chariot of imagination. The awareness of the inadequacy of the sense of sight puts all the other senses on alert. The different sections illuminated in the following order – warm white light (low frequency), no light (dark), yellow light (mono frequency) and finally cool white light (high frequency) – testify to the progress of the “observers”. It should be noted that this is a strong Eliasson trademark: the attempt to provoke movement through color-a process analogous to other installations such as (1) “Room of one Color” (1998), (2) “360 degrees Room for all Colors” (2002), (3) “Your body of work” (2011), and (4) “Your rainbow panorama” (2011). In these installations, the author gives primacy to the participant to determine the pace, rhythm, and feasibility of the experience, encouraging them to discover something invisible. Inside the tunnel, hearing is activated in a geopositional way: Sounds from other observers provide information about the observer’s position in space (distance, acoustic properties of sections, etc.), announce predictions of situations to come, and protect the observer from unexpected surprises by preparing him or her for what will follow. Hearing the sounds of other people can even provide safety when experiencing the art installation alone. Thermal perception (the perception of temperature) becomes more than an informative sense: it begins to interpret and recognize meaning (the skin also sees and the eyes also feel). Therefore, the sections with different hues in the device trigger synesthetic information between different senses: yellow light, the feeling of warmth; cold white light with a grayish glow, the feeling of cold; darkness, the feeling of alertness. (Figure 3)

Figure 3. Din blinde passager, 2010. Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson.
ARKEN Museum of Morden Art, Ishøj, Dinamarca.

The continuous capture of reality and the reorganization of sensory tasks have prepared the main part of the tunnel: the absence of light. Eliasson frees the viewer from the usual habits of evaluating reality and questions the self-sufficiency of vision. When vision is not the predominant sensory portal of perception, the body acts as a medium. Why? – Because the sensory portal of vision acts on and confirms the periphery of intuition: Limited human vision provides only fragments of the environment, so the environment is only partially perceived and captured by the images and assembled into a whole: “A visual field does not consist of local views. But the object seen consists of fragments of matter and the points of space lie outside each other” (Merleau-Ponty 1999:25). The daily flood of visual information reinforces the hidden ignorance of the self and responds trivially to the innermost appeals of the self. Therefore, the absence of light is terrifying to us – visual beings. In darkness, the reality surrounding us is unknown: The spatial dimension changes according to fear. To summarize: (i) the hands instinctively serve as radar in the search for obstacles or as the original protection of the cranial box where everything takes place; (ii) the steps become more measured and (iii) the sound of breathing becomes more present. (Figure 4) With the recognition of the fragility of the sense of sight – that the possibility of internal synchronization arises – the systemic reorganization of all other senses is accepted. “Movement, touch, seeing henceforth refer to the other and to themselves, they go back to the source, and in the patient and silent work of desire the paradox of expression begins” (Merleau-Ponty, 2003:140). The viewer is thus forced to create a non-space that leads (empirically) from inside the tunnel to his or her own interior. This is due to the mental and physical experience, which, as Eliasson puts it, “a feeling is a relationship between mental and physical state.

The specificity of the environment thus generates subjective questions that focus on the production and appropriation of knowledge about the viewer’s body, clarifying its meaning and connection with the work.

Figure 4. Imagine, 2019. Photo: Rodolfo Anes Silveira.
Fonte: Imagem gerada digitalmente

2. The symbiosis between two worlds

It is the invisible side of “Your blind passenger” that gives the art object its cathartic effect: the signing of the pact of trust between the body and the stowaway. The uniqueness of each viewer operates in the abyss of these two worlds:

(i) the world that received us as soon as we arrived and will remain as soon as we leave: an external, cultural, circumstantial, evolutionary world in which we participate and which will continue to exist without us; (ii) and an intimate world in which inner life, the nature of experience, in short, the qualities of being alive, predominate: a world that exists only because we also exist, a world that will cease to exist if there is no inner life, and without which we will cease to understand and experience the other external world. So, as we would like to emphasize, it is the awareness of this inner world on which the knowledge and evaluation of the outer world is based.

According to Eliasson, “the idea that the perceiver becomes the producer is essential here: he projects his feelings onto his environment – in other words, he relates them. Through the systemic migration of the moving bodies and the atmosphere of the phenomena and the physical conditions surrounding them, both (participant-body-passenger) constitute meaning in the translation of the phenomenological experience of appropriating nature, which in turn is recreated in the search for the transformation that the observed produces in the observer.

So there are two lives united in one body. Driven by emotions, it satisfies desires by satisfying the most intimate pleasures through motor tasks: a tool for mechanical and spiritual survival, a medium and a bridge that connects the two ends of the two worlds into a “sensible self,” that is, into the “flesh” that absorbs the world into the fragile shell of the sensible.

“We must get used to the idea that everything visible is formed in the sensible … every tactile being is endowed with a certain visibility …” (Merleau-Ponty 2003:131). The allusion to the concept of “flesh” is obvious and goes far beyond dualism: the body also sees. It is understandable that the predetermined harmony of the sensory world is inscribed in the perceptual process alongside the fragments of vision: “…all seeing takes place in a part of tactile space” (Merleau-Ponty 2003:131). Perception, of whatever order, allows small embodiments of memory to enter both the body of perception and the body of sensation. For “instead of competing with the thickness of the world, that of my body is, on the contrary, the only means I possess of penetrating to the core of things by making myself the world and transforming it into flesh” (Merleau-Ponty 2003:132). In short, there is a language that underlies all beings, a communication in which gesture functions, the “Universal Word” and the basis of all life.

3. Between appropriation of nature and imagination

Eliasson thus urges the passage between worlds. He proposes possibilities of interiority to his passengers (who share the same body) and encourages them to create unique unconscious panoramas. And he does so in such a way that each observer’s empathic response anticipates the extremes of his experience: from tragic sadness to extreme joy: the experience is unconsciously outlined by the feelings generated in the observer’s body, and is therefore unique, subjective, and literally one of a kind. Note that the “unconscious is also the driving element of the movement of thought and action” (Gil 2018:338). It is the ceaseless search for “carnal” responses and impulses that sets the muscular system, somatic nervous system, and cognitive system in motion in search of meaning. This empathic reward in a mental space obeys neither rules nor limits. The dimension of the clandestine passenger (the creation of the singular artistic object) arises both from the (pre-)arranged desires, fears, inner values, and from the influential ambitions and perspectives of spiritual realization in the “inner experience” (Bataille). In the imagination, the sky is not the limit. For “the body still has the power to imagine on all scales…” (Gil, 2018: 332).

One might even say that the immersive experience creates emotionally competent objects in an abstract way and in a brief allusion to neuroscience. Antonio Damasio says that both perceptions and feelings are associated with immediate objects. Objects that transmit a series of signals that pass through the brain maps and are directly linked to the feelings generated. It should be noted that perception, the process of recording memories and ideas, occurs inside the body, not outside. To clarify, although perception and feelings are mental processes, both originate in different worlds (in their respective order): outside and inside:

“Feelings are not only tied to an immediate object, the body, but also to an emotionally competent object that has set the chain of feelings in motion. In a very curious way, the emotionally competent object is responsible for establishing the object that is the immediate origin of the feeling. [The spectacular panorama of a sunset over the sea is an emotionally competent object. But the state of the body resulting from the contemplation of that panorama is the immediate object that is the origin of the feeling, and it is the object whose perception constitutes the essence of the feeling” (Damasio, 2003:110).

The pending journey between these two worlds, the chain of feelings and emotions, the inner reflection and imagination are the necessary conditions for the self-knowledge of what is most natural in oneself. The previously signed pact of trust reveals the hidden face of the ignorant passenger, and the innermost self reveals the purest “aura” (Benjamin) through the mists of tense social influence. From within the observer, a new perspective emerges, a new evaluation of the self and the external world around the sublime in nature. “Self-awareness-this preeminent human capacity-emerges through knowledge of what the other feels and thinks, an expression of man’s inexhaustible desire for man” (Vincent, 2010:33).

4. The Invisible Present

What is called “now” falls within the time gap of nanoseconds that circumscribe the emitted impulse and the response to that impulse: be it light, sound, any electromagnetic or chemical field that makes us move in relation to something. For example, in a telephone conversation with someone from another continent, although we know that there is a small millisecond delay, what we define as “now” is inscribed in the temporal gap called “present”. It should be noted that this notion of “present” is contained within our planet Earth, and that outside it the difference of milliseconds would become light years, which would dethrone our valuable notion of “present”. Let it be noted that: “The notion of “present” concerns things near, not distant” (Rovelli, 2018:47). It is this very proximity (the composition of links of forces generated by the pre-disposed constellations of elements) that cements the basis of the synesthetic process: the reunion of the different variants of combining sensory portals in the reconstruction of reality. Thus, “the visible around us seems to rest on itself” (Merleau-Ponty 2003:128). And it is this seeming, this similarity, this questioning that paves the atrium of the cathedral of the most intimate, in an invitation to the transgression of habit where dwells the liberation of the individual condition and the discovery of the inner nature of the sensitive/sentient body.

The Invisible Present “…of this world, that which inhabits it, sustains it, and makes it visible, its inner and proper possibility, the being of this being” (Merleau-Ponty 2003:146) functions in ongoing cognitive development and learning on the basis of the inability to grasp fragments of reality with the eyes alone, and on the basis of the innate vocation of the observer: in the reception of stimuli, the appropriation of nature, the perception and self-knowledge of the self, and the possibility of creating “mental images”; a reconciliation of two worlds; the rejuvenation of the “aura” (Benjamin) of the singular artistic object; a pact of trust between the observer and the incognito stowaway on the deck of the memory wagon. From the imagination we see the unthinkable and thus comprehend (through the awakening of the senses) the magical presence of the sensual world.


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