The Danish-Icelandic artist talks fighting climate change with culture, and why light is an eternal source of inspiration for him
For all their monumental scale and jaw-to-the-floor effect, Olafur Eliasson’s works produce a quietly meditative state. You can walk on air inside his rainbow at the ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, or lose yourself in the warped mirrors he did at Versailles. And the immersive thrill of his seminal 2003 installation The Weather Project inside the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, which caused people to lie down in a daze and stare at the misty ceiling reflection, is probably what placed Eliasson firmly on the map as one of the most important contemporary artists today.
His works silence the noise in your head by tapping into something much larger and almost cosmic, making you question your perception of space, reality and yourself. At the same time they’re very much about the not-so-grand human experience, not least because we as onlookers help ‘create’ the works. Since graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1995, Icelandic-Danish Eliasson has been based between Copenhagen and his studio in Berlin, where he and a massive team of architects, programmers, art historians, craftsmen and chefs experiment across a range of objects.
Eliasson isn’t afraid to cross paths with the fashion industry. He’s worked with Fondation Louis Vuitton and his solar lamp Little Sun, which he first created with engineer Frederik Ottesen in 2012, is sold at the Copenhagen flagship store belonging to fashion designer and kindred sustainable spirit Mads Nørgaard. During Copenhagen Fashion Week in August, the lamp lit up a dinner hosted by the trade show Revolver, whose founder and creative director Christian Maibom is a staunch supporter of the natural crossover between art, fashion and sustainability.
This time, he got Anne Sofie Madsen to stage a “let’s come together” happening as guests were sitting down for dinner, before Eliasson got up to give a speech quoting Buckminster Fuller on how we’re not passengers of Earth but co-pilots, living on a planet that’s in need of our care. Increasingly, Eliasson has turned his attention to issues around climate change and sustainability. In 2014, he installed a dry riverbed at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and placed melting blocks of Greenland ice on the streets of Paris the year after.
His latest object, the Little Sun Diamond, was launched last year to mark five years of the solar lamp project. Echoing Eliasson’s large-scale pieces with its sparkling geometric facets, the Diamond sits on a stand or hangs from a lanyard, which can also be worn around the neck. Dedicated to improving the socio-economic situation in off-grid communities, the Little Sun project has so far distributed 500,000 lamps to sub-Saharan Africa. Sales in on-grid areas subsidise the distribution of lamps at reduced, locally affordable prices.
Where westerners buy the lamps for jolly things like camping or garden lights, they serve a much more basic human need in places like South Africa as a safe alternative to polluting kerosene lamps and their dangerous smoke, as well as aiding education and livelihoods. We catch up with Eliasson to speak to him about his climate change ideas. Here, he gives an insight into why his work centres so much on bodily experience, and why light remains an eternal source of inspiration for him.
In light of what you said about being co-pilots of Earth, I was thinking it’s quite terrifying how we’re no longer just looking for planets in terms of scientific curiosity, but because we’re probably going to need another place to live since we’ve completely ruined this one.
Olafur Eliasson: Yeah, that is true. I was reading that Elon Musk apparently expects to retire and die on Mars. Still, I think we should be careful to use it as escapism. For instance, I’m quite curious about how to turn our increasing consciousness about the planet into an increase in action. But because we are human beings and we are lazy by nature and we love things that are predictable and tested and convenient and we hate risks, that means changing the way we do things is very unattractive. I’m very curious about how we can make change more comfortable. It’s going to be a steep step to turn thinking into doing unless we find ways where people can adapt to the doing mode without compromising their sense of comfort. It just won’t work if people feel the lesser quality in life and (things are) more expensive and less attractive. We have worked so hard with modernity to create the success of society as we know it. Now we need to use the vehicle of our society, the successes, to create change and yet maintain a concept of comfort. Maybe comfort has to change.
I’m very interested in this idea of art creating change rather than the government or some official body telling people what to do.
Olafur Eliasson: I’m convinced the so-called culture sector in our society is more likely to create change than the public sector, the politicians, or the private sector. Because the private sector is driven by profitability primarily. And currently, the public sector is corrupted by populism. That leaves the cultural sector, which is very close to the civic sector. It enjoys the fact that it has a lot of civic trust and loyalty. That means people kind of trust the culture sector, also because it reflects people’s emotional needs. When people engage in the cultural sector they see themselves being reflected. This means the cultural sector is about the people. It’s not about profitability or egoism. I also think the culture sector successfully combines being emotional with being rational. The private sector is only about profitability and rationalism, McKinsey-fication of the world. And the public sector is only about populism, which is over-emotional, like Trump. It has no data, no science, it’s completely irrational. It’s just emotional. Culture actually has a commitment to academia, to history, to identity, to psychology. The culture sector is both emotional and rational. Little Sun – which I, as an artist actually did together with a scientist, a solar engineer – is in a way, the emotional holding hands with the rational. And it’s about showing that the culture sector has tools to change the world.
“It’s going to be a steep step to turn thinking into doing unless we find ways where people can adapt to the doing mode without compromising their sense of comfort” – Olafur Eliasson
Looking through your work, I was thinking: imagine if a debate in Parliament about climate change used your “Ice Watch” project as a point of departure, rather than someone reading out statistics and numbers. Maybe that would bring about a completely different kind of conversation.
Olafur Eliasson: I totally agree. I normally say that the politicians should try to move the parliament into an art school. They should use art as a debate tool. And let’s not be naïve. I would, for the time being, then put the artists, the art students, in the parliament. Let’s just face it: it might not be so bad for them too. (laughs) I think that’s a healthy exchange. What I think culture offers is the opportunity for somatic or embodied experience, which means the knowledge we have in our bodies. If you have walked across a glacier in Greenland, you simply have a different physical understanding of what climate change means. It’s just different than if you’re a politician who sits with an Excel data sheet with the numbers about how much the glacier is melting. Clearly, it’s two different ways of experiencing. And I understand the complexity of not being able to send every person in the world to Greenland, of course. And me taking a part of the glacier in Greenland to Paris is to indicate the fact that it’s hard to make decisions without allowing the physical experience to be a part of the debate. We need to combine the data sheet with the people who have experienced this. It’s the combination of data and feelings that will guide us to a successful solution, I’m sure. For example, when you’re at the theatre watching somebody on the stage, it’s very physical. You can almost feel the sweat and the way the analogue sound of the stage resonates into the room. Even though you’re sitting in your passive chair, it’s a very different experience than looking at it on television or on YouTube. And we in the culture sector need to get better at convincing people that being physically together is fundamentally different than talking to each other on Skype.
It’s interesting also to think about how viewing art online nowadays affects the art experience. Especially in relation to your work, which is so very much about this idea about immersion and a sensory experience. Viewing things online changes that.
Olafur Eliasson: Yes. That’s true. But I do think that we can use Instagram. I use it – I do my own Instagram for the studio and I use it to raise issues about sensitivity, phenomenology, or experience, perception. And I see it more as a dialogue than as an end result. It gives me an opportunity to share things from my studio, which are not quite done, but it still advocates for the sensitivity that a physical experience can convey. I think you should be careful to say it’s either-or. I do think magazines such as Dazed can facilitate physical arguments as long as they don’t pretend to be them themselves. They can cater and support them taking place elsewhere. So I don’t want to polarise. I think we all need to come together and work together.
That’s kind of what Little Sun is about, isn’t it? Where you have people in Europe buying it for camping, and then they’re supporting people who are without any kind of electricity, such as kids who can’t do their homework at night. I think that’s a really lovely way of bringing people together.
Olafur Eliasson: Yeah, and also adding to that consciousness, an element of beauty. To suggest that design actually has a voice in this. To give to the abstract notion of energy… I mean, what is energy in the first place, right? To give that notion a felt sense of something beautiful. And I think especially for a child the beauty comes in two ways. The new Little Sun Diamond has a very tickling effect on a child as it’s a very playful and beautiful little object. But the second round of beauty is when the child or the user of the Diamond goes out into the sun and harvests the sunbeams. It’s a really funny thing because my own son he was actually reaching the solar panel towards the sun as if being a little bit closer to the sun would amplify. And I said, ‘you can just put it on the ground, it won’t make a difference.’ And clearly the moment I said that, I realised that I was taking away, I was being typically grown-up and boringly teacher-ist. He was on his toes to fill up his lamp, physically engaging himself in harvesting as much sunlight as possible. That’s the second round of beauty. To engage the child in the sustainable energy. And to understand that there are actually other solutions out there in the world. You might just have to stand on your toes to pick them.
The Little Sun Diamond is a beautiful object of art. It reminds me so much of your spheres.
Olafur Eliasson: Exactly, but it is a small sculpture of mine. It is so far my smallest work of art and my biggest work of art because it’s like a crowd-funding system. One lamp itself is quite exciting, but the truth is the power is in the crowd. It is the united power by everybody being a part of this project that actually gives it its true impact.
What is it that interests you so much about light on a larger scale throughout your work?
Olafur Eliasson: Well, I think light historically has always been about the unquantifiable. It’s been about spirituality, maybe about a religious source, the Egypt sun king Ra. And light and the sun are associated with deep emotional connotations. In every religion, light is seen as a carrier of comfort or enlightenment, you could say. When we talk about light we also talk about a brighter future. We talk about light being very much about having access to empowerment, educating yourself in a sense. So I guess my point is that light very quickly goes from both speaking to if not the spiritual then at least the contemplative to addressing the everyday needs that you have. You need light as a human organism. The body needs light and photosynthesis to survive. It’s so fundamental, whether it’s spiritually or it’s quite literal and physical as a species on the planet. And that I think is the reason why light has always been at the heart of every strand of religion as being seen as the source of the future or the brighter future.
“I normally say that the politicians should try to move the parliament into an art school” – Olafur Eliasson
Yeah, the divine light.
Olafur Eliasson: And to add to that from an artistic perspective, the focusing on light in a time when there is a fetishistic relationship with objects – everything seems to be about object. The economy seems to be obsessed with the conspicuous consumption of objects, right? And this light offers an opportunity, which is not conspicuous. Something which is actually both amazing and still modest. Most importantly, it offers the opportunity for you to be present in a room, not having to compete with an object next to you. Light is ephemeral and you could say it’s dematerialised. If you’re in a room with light it always seems to promote your presence. And if you successfully – and this is so difficult – automatically focus on your own perception of the room rather than on the room, it gives you, I think, a fundamental feeling of presence. This is of course complex and not easy to achieve but I think still a key drive of why people keep being so fundamentally fascinated by light.
Yes, the immaterialness of it. Jumping slightly to other immaterial things: your relationship with fashion. How do you feel about the fashion industry where it is on one hand about ephemeral beauty and the body but there are also issues around extreme and unsustainable consumption?
Olafur Eliasson: Well, I think primarily I’m focused on quality. The challenge is when things are watered down and they lose some kind of quality. And quality doesn’t have to be only because it is made well and it’s expensive. Sometimes quality can be in the intentions or in the vision. As long as there’s an element of quality I’m very interested in it. I’m very interested in the Little Sun introducing this idea of a more crowd-funding based type of economy. I’m also curious about how we will probably see whole different relationships in the fashion industry in the future with recycled and reused and upcycled and circular economical systems where the waste management and the consciousness of both the consumer and the producer are going to come much closer together. I’m convinced that the future success of the fashion industry will rely on the consciousness of the consumer, the user of the fashion. I think there is a strong indication that in short to medium terms there will be a robust change in the way that fashion is being consumed.
When you buy Little Sun products, you make solar energy available to communities without electricity at a locally affordable price. For every Little Sun sold, one goes to our partners in rural Africa, where we train local sales agents and bring solar energy to those who need it most. Buy a Little Sun Diamond here