Light and colour are two fundamental aspects of our daily life. For centuries artists have been fascinated by the effects of light and shade on the surface of a canvas and their effect onto the viewer. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has been making monochromatic rooms since the 1990s, following his interests in physics, neurology and optical illusions. Eliasson’s rooms take colour to their extreme; by creating these experimental one-coloured environments, he invites individuals to acquaint themselves with natural phenomena and the way we see our world.
Colour is central to Eliasson's research and works. He has made a number of surfaces and rooms bathed in one colour. Eliasson wrote, “As our brains have to handle or digest less visual information due to the lack of other colours we feel that we see details more easily than usual”. In other words, the experience of being in a one-colour spatial dimension, allows us to acquire a “hypervision” with the ability to detect in a sharper and more focused way the space and people around us.
But the artist’s research lead him to another realization: Although a group of people entering a monochrome room might recognize one colour only, he found that seeing is always relative and subjective. Rather than a given, the experience of seeing colour always varies according to the viewer. Speaking about his yellow room, Room for One Colour (1997), he stated, “The most obvious impact of the yellow light is the realisation that perception is acquired [...] our vision simply is not objective.” The visitor of the room is able to become aware that what they are able to see is individual and a varying perception of depth, two dimensionality or flattening of space and people in it, all illusionistic consequences of focusing on one monochrome environment. And thus the “ability to see ourselves in a different light." Experiencing colour is an extreme experience of individuality.
After images are an important aspect of our colour memory. If we enter a room saturated In red light our eyes react to produce green - the red is almost erased. If the room is blue after about 10 seconds you will begin to produce an orange after image. One colour is never in itself: in the process of seeing there are two colour curves are at work: the one of the room and the one created belatedly by us in our eyes.
These realisations are crucial to our everyday life, going beyond simple scientific experimentations and promising a social potential of seeing our everyday world differently as ever changing, in a flux and never solid, crystallised in one aspect or behavior. Using Eliasson’s words, the fact that things are not what they look like is very healthy and this is an experience that propagates and expands. In fact, once outside of the room, the viewer acquires a new awareness of his/her everyday surroundings.