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Part mad scientist, part design virtuoso, Daan Roosegaarde creates public projects around the world that push the boundaries of landscape and infrastructure, and seek to address and propose solutions to environmental problems. The Van Gogh Path, part of Smart Highway, brought The Starry Night to an illuminated road in the Netherlands; the Smog Free Project introduces pollution vacuums to major cities, like Beijing, that suffer from poor air quality; and the majestic lighting installation Waterlicht illustrates how the cities in which it is staged could one day be submerged by rising sea levels. (It’s also quite a beautiful artwork to experience.)

Now, Rotterdam’s Groninger Museum is home to Presence, the Dutch creator’s first retrospective, which continues to January, 2020. The exhibition emphasizes interactivity and employs technology to connect visitors to the ways in which their actions make impressions on their surroundings. It’s whimsical and immersive, but also aims for something much more powerful: to create an awareness of how people affect the world around them. We reached out to Roosegaarde to learn more about the ideas that went into the exhibition.

Daan Roosegaarde Presence

AZURE: In her essay accompanying the exhibition, Sue-an van der Zipp explains, “As the starting points for the exhibition, Roosegaarde took the iconic ecological footprint and the idea of visualizing the human impact on their environment.” Is the exhibition experience explicitly about this: a desire on your part that participants in the exhibition will make that connection to how they impact their environment? Is there anything in the exhibition – such as a call to action of some sort – that encourages visitors to extend this participatory spirit to their communities? Or is that connection meant to be more intuitive than didactic? 


Presence is about creating a place where you feel connected. It does not provide direct solutions, such as the Space Waste Lab or Smog Free Project, but rather aims for the layer above that: the intuition and creativity of people. The fact that you can touch everything and your physical presence creates an atmosphere in which you make the artwork, but the artwork also makes you.

I believe that we are disconnected with the world around us, a lot of global challenges seem far away from our daily life. Making people see the impact they have on their landscape is a trigger to take more care. The exhibition ends with a famous quote by Canadian author Marshall McLuhan: “On Spaceship Earth there are no passengers. We are all crew.” This is very important for me – to not just be a consumer, but to be a maker. Every visitor will have his or her own actions after the exhibition. You create a dreamworld to change the perspective of what reality is.

As someone whose work is often large-scale and outdoor – and sometimes wrought directly into the landscape or city – what was the most challenging aspect of designing an indoor exhibition within rooms of smaller scale than you’re used to?

Indeed, creating Presence is something I had never done before. Groninger Museum approached me three years ago with the request for an oeuvre exhibition. That sounded really scary for me – my previous artworks with a lot of signs saying “please do not touch.” So I rejected that idea. We proposed something radical: an all-new artwork as a layer of light and interaction in the museum, with a “please touch” attitude. The Groninger Museum said yes (which I thought was brave) and we got to work.

The first prototypes we made at Studio Roosegaarde really sucked. The reason was because we indeed are so used to using light, wind, even car headlights (in the Gates of Light project). But inside the museum these elements are not present; it felt like wind in a glass bottle which is not wind anymore. So we had to zoom out, and start to work more with the context of the museum. We started to remove these annoying “please do not touch” signs and the very ugly light-emitting green “exit” signs (which took eight months of negotiation with the fire inspectors). Then I put the people – you, me, the visitor – central in the work. You would make the artwork – without your physical presence it would not exist. Then the prototypes started to become way better.

The exhibition starts very George Orwell: you are walking into a copy machine and the space scans you, leaving your traces behind. Then there is another space, which is very empty and you are not sure what to look at. Suddenly, the red light changes and reveals your imprint on the walls and floor. As you walk through the spaces, it becomes more like nature – more Leonardo da Vinci – thousands of stardusts, a huge sphere which relates to the Earth or new planets. And we end with the Lolas (named after the intern who made them), which leave lines of light on the floor as futuristic cave drawings. It’s a very personal and intimate exhibition.


Daan Roosegaarde Presence

Lighting seems to be a major part of the exhibition. Was a certain lighting mood designed for a specific effect, for instance to focus visitors’ attention and/or discourage them from taking selfies?

Light for me is not decoration but an activator – to create a direct relationship between you and the landscape, but also between you and other people. It is very interesting how in the exhibition there is no more hierarchy between people, from CEOs to kids – everybody interacts with each other.

Of course people take photos. But that just encourages other people to go there and experience it; you have to be there in order to fully get it.

Daan Roosegaarde Presence

You understood early on that even the natural world isn’t really natural anymore – it’s very much manmade. Your works are techno-poetic, as you say, and you’re using technology to advocate for (or provide solutions for) the environment (like the Smog Free Project) and to make it’s invisible impacts more visible (like Waterlicht). Where does this exhibition fit into your broader work?

Well, the Netherlands is mostly below sea level. So, without technology, without design, we would literally all drown and die a horrible death. But we do not because of a smart network of dikes and pumps and windmills. We live with nature, we fight with nature; we try to create a new harmony. This relationship is also in my work: combining practical and poetic elements, functionality and fantasy. I feel part of this Dutch landscape tradition.

Placing Presence in a museum setting allows me to create very intimate interactions which would never work in public space. But it is still a landscape, it is still pushing the boundaries of what an exhibition can be. It was scary for me because we had no idea if it would work, what people would really do. You place control into the hands of visitors – if they do not interact, the exhibition is doomed. But we are happy that the exhibition has a record number of visitors in the 25-year existence of the Groninger Museum. You walk there and there is so much energy. It gives me a taste to do more. It was also really nice to work in a warm space with coffee, instead of these colds nights in outdoor public spaces! (Laughs)

But public space will always be the place which is home. Our upcoming projects are a new Smog Free Project in Korea, a new Waterlicht in New York, and a new Holocaust monument in the Netherlands.

Daan Roosegaarde Presence

Daan Roosegaarde’s Presence is on at the Groninger Museum until January 12, 2020. For this and other architecture and design happenings, check out our Events listings.

Daan Roosegaarde’s “Presence” Beautifully Connects Thought and Action

Best known for his outdoor projects, such as Smog Free Vacuum and Waterlicht, the Dutch artist and inventor animates the much more intimate setting of the Groninger Museum.

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