How we made Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project

‘When the US president came to London, people arranged themselves on the floor to spell “Bush go home”’

Olafur Eliasson, artist

All countries talk about the weather, but the British really take ownership of it. So when Nick Serota invited me to take over the Turbine Hall, my idea was to play with this. At first I wanted to do a little display replicating all different kinds of weather. But I kept stripping away from this idea until all I had left was the idea of creating a sun. We used a semicircle of light, reflected in a mirror. I was thinking of the way the sun sets against the sea, or the reflections in Edvard Munch’s paintings. Then I put in a little haze, a little fog, which helped take attention away from the hall’s rather robust walls.

Technically it was not a very difficult project. But there was a lot of work involved that you might not see. Have you any idea how much stuff there is on museum floors? Trash cans, coat hangers, signage … We had to clear it all out so people didn’t see it reflected in the mirrors. I took away everything – even the suggested donations box in the entrance!

Yoga in the sun … fun in the glow of The Weather Project.
Yoga in the sun … fun in the glow of The Weather Project. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

I was nervous on opening night. I’m always jealous of painters who finish their painting, then sit and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes looking at it for months before they hang it in the gallery. I have to stand at the opening seeing it for the first time with the visitors.

Protesters at Tate Modern in November 2003.
Protesters at Tate Modern in November 2003. Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features

What surprised me was how people became very physically explicit. I pictured them looking up with their eyes, but they were lying down, rolling around and waving. One person brought an inflatable canoe. There were yoga classes that came, and weird poetry cults doing doomsday events. When President Bush visited London some people arranged themselves on the floor to spell “Bush go home” as a protest – to do that in reverse so it read in the mirror is actually pretty difficult. I liked how the whole thing became about connecting your brain and your body. That I did not foresee.

We also had a BBC weatherman set up a little studio and do the forecast from the Tate every day for a week. He’d do the forecast with my sun behind it and then at the end say: “And here at the Tate the sun is still shining.” Within a week, millions of people had seen the work on TV.

The Weather Project is currently in my basement, wrapped up in a few boxes. But – 15 years later – I still hear about the effect it had on people. When I was at the Venice Biennale last year a Bulgarian couple who were both architects told me how they’d been to see it in London and it inspired them. Then they introduced their 10-year-old daughter: “And this is Tate.”

Sebastian Behmann, head of design at Studio Olafur Eliasson

I did not feel secure about the project when it opened, and neither did Olafur. It was just a mirror and a half circle of light! The lights were maybe not as strong as we’d wished for, and the bridge in the middle of the Turbine Hall, which separates the space in two parts, was a problem – we were afraid that as you entered, the work would not be strongly expressed.

High culture … the mirrored ceiling was 25m up.
High culture … the mirrored ceiling was 25m up. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

This was the first large-scale project that I’d help realise for Olafur. At first we’d experimented with all kinds of weather: rain, snow, wind ... but in such a large space you really have to focus on one thing so we went with the sun.

Normally, the way to make a large space accessible to humans is to divide it up into smaller parts. Putting a mirror on the ceiling did the opposite – it doubled this huge space. I thought the idea of 4,000 sq m of mirrored ceiling was impossible. But we found this German company that made very delicate, thin aluminium mirrors with incredible reflective quality. The reflection had to be perfect so that people could still recognise themselves with the mirrors 25m in the air.

We couldn’t find anyone willing to install the mirrors. None of the established companies who normally do this kind of work were crazy enough to go for it. In the end, the mirror manufacturers, along with our team, joined forces and we did it ourselves. We pre-mounted about 20 panels on the floor that then had to be lifted up with this kind of spider’s web construction and combined together. It all went surprisingly well.

There were already visitors there when we arrived to see it on opening day. As you walked in you saw them reflected in the ceiling. It completely changed the way you saw the space and helped connect everything together. When you install something like this, you don’t think about big crowds being there – or at least we didn’t back then. But the people being there is what made it work so well.

• Olafur Eliasson will be at the Southbank Centre as part of London Literature Festival on 26 October. Olafur Eliasson: Experience is published by Phaidon on 15 October. A solo exhibition of his work comes to the Tate Modern from 11 July 2019 to 5 January 2020

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Interviews by Tim Jonze

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