Olafur Eliasson

Martin Herbert talks to the Danish-Icelandic artist, whose socially and environmentally responsible practice continues to offer new ways to measure and exploit the impact of contemporary art

By Martin Herbert

Riverbed, 2014. Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk. © 2012–14 the artist Inside the Horizon, 2014. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris all works © 2012–14 the artist Model Room, 2003. Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk. © 2012–14 the artist Loading ice at Nuuk Port and Harbour, Greenland Photo: Group Greenland. © 2012–14 the artist Little Sun, 2012, in use. Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson, Berlin & Copenhagen. © 2012–14 the artist

Let’s get this out of the way: Olafur Eliasson’s studio is big. Sprawling over four floors of a redbrick former brewery in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, it’s – well, here are some scale markers. “This is the canteen; they published their own cookbook,” says the Danish-Icelandic artist as we glide through the space where his team, which numbers upwards of 80, takes a communal information-sharing lunch every day. (The book is the covetable TYT [Take Your Time] Volume 5: The Kitchen, 2013.) A moment after, while we’re touring the “fastest-growing unit in the studio”, the area that houses the fresh-faced research team for Eliasson’s solar-powered, award-winning LED lamp, Little Sun (2012) – a group distinct from the 25-person research team serenely labouring downstairs – the artist will casually note that “we just bought the building next door”.

A short elevator ride later, we’re in a series of spaces where Eliasson is testing for Inside the Horizon (2014), 43 mirrored columns edging an indoor pool, which a fortnight hence will open the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris: vast mirrors that are “just plastic wrapped around a stretcher, but with very little distortion on it”. Also here are giant balls of glass that operate as incredibly sharp fisheye lenses. Then, just as swiftly, we’re in a sector dotted with photographs and design plans. This is the architecture department, its current projects including a collaboration with Toyo Ito on CapitaGreen, an ecological highrise in Singapore, for whose base level Eliasson is making undulating treelike columns that double as a sculpture – “a nice experiment with inflatable steel structures: they’re robot-welded, then we have a pressure chamber, then we can press it into a shape like that” – and the studio’s first soup-to-nuts commission, from door handles upward, for a foundation in Denmark.

Amid this hive of activity, while Little Sun’s clean light is being rolled out across 13 African countries and installations are being polished for a French billionaire purveyor of luxury goods, other projects are unfurling, their logistics being crunched. The Institut für Raumexperimente, or Institute for Spatial Experiments, the pedagogical collaboration (lectures, workshops, experiments) with Berlin’s University of the Arts that Eliasson ran for five years in his studio, has just ended its tenure, and when we meet, a final fanfare, Festival of Future Nows, is soon to open in the city’s Neue Nationalgalerie. We pass a model for Riverbed (2014), lately opened at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, one of those tiny little projects where the artist transports an entire Icelandic landscape (rocky slopes and a stream) into a gallery, complete with intricately adjusted lighting, temperature and humidity, in order to turn the institution insideout. In a few weeks, Eliasson will set up Ice Watch (2014), a collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing for which 100 tons of Greenland ice are being transported to Copenhagen’s City Hall Square, to raise awareness of climate change. He doesn’t even mention it.

When we sit down to chat, and after Eliasson has commended the GarageBand recording software I’m using for its “great time-coding”, I suggest that Riverbed and Little Sun, taken together, might be neatly paradigmatic for what he does. That is, moving art, in a manner so often concerned with light, colour and landscape, into the outside world and the outside world into the purview of art, establishing porosity between inside and outside, art and science, art and social project or education or architecture – as see everything from the aforementioned works to the Green River series (1998), in which he poured uranin, a bright green luminous dye used to test plumbing leaks, into rivers; The Weather Project (2003), his misted artificial sun for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall; and the four manmade waterfalls he set up in New York, New York City Waterfalls (2008). Eliasson agrees to some degree: he’s relentlessly patient and affable, even if you say something a bit silly. But to him, evidently – as he fiddles, at first without success, with the cap of a mineral water bottle and then snaps it off on the edge of his desk – borders aren’t that interesting in themselves. What matters is the real-world pragmatics of what happens when they’re dissolved.

Riverbed was for the Louisiana Museum, whose architecture is from a period where the seamlessness between inside and outside was introduced, as were a number of modern illusions of openness,” he says by way of preface. “Within this very contemplative museum, but also this very well functioning exhibition machine, I wanted something that would almost have the volume and scale to destabilise the museum a bit, pressure it. So I wanted it to look almost like a rock garden, but also to have a sense of a mudslide. Brutal, deathlike; it’s almost an alien landscape, and really it’s there to introduce destabilising qualities that one experiences outside – you’re walking on a slope, keeping your balance, recomposing your walking to fit the landscape – but you don’t really notice, you take them for granted. So I don’t only move the landscape in but also the microconflicts: suddenly we don’t take them for granted. This is what is interesting: the experience, the activities you do, also become exhibited. It’s as much about the interaction as about the actual plateau, the platform, on which people are walking.”

This isn’t the first time that Eliasson has set the conditions for a coproduction between artist and viewer. Making his aims explicit, in the past two decades he’s created many, many works with Your in the title – at random: Your Compound Eye (1996), Seeing Yourself Seeing (2001), Your Utopia (2003). When we talk, it’s just after U2 have forced a very bland record into everyone’s iTunes account, and I’m wondering if, in order to be widely successful, art also has to be vague, concerned with generalist sentiments, universals: love, light, landscape, pseudoempowerment; and how strategic Eliasson is about such things. Yet when I ask him why he thinks that art over the last couple of decades has become widely coproductive, and how his work fits into that, Eliasson begins to clarify the dimensions of his thinking, the precision in the rainbow fog.

In my positivistic trust in art, I was very confident in this being a way of going against irony and self-obsession, and that introducing the viewer as coauthor would dematerialise the sheen or objecthood of the artwork, critically deconstruct it

“I came out of a generation – in the 1990s – where phenomenology was very important. For me it represented a new confidence in the subject being capable of making sense of the world today. And in my positivistic trust in art, I was very confident in this being a way of going against irony and self-obsession, and that introducing the viewer as coauthor would dematerialise the sheen or objecthood of the artwork, critically deconstruct it. But,” – the Scandinavian collectivist in him emerges – “I was also fundamentally interested in what it means to share a space. It’s not just about the work of art and the viewer. It’s also both of them and another viewer in what might be an institution, or might be a street. What does it mean to be two people on the street, and to what extent does the street facilitate disagreeing, or agreeing? Does it, actually? Does the street, by virtue of its architectural footprint or planning, exercise hospitality, does it alienate people if they’re different? These are questions that are very good to be tested in museums, galleries, small works of art in small spaces.”

This, for Eliasson, is one reason why there should be an interchange between outside world and artworld; and also, one would think, why there are so many mirrors in his work, and so many opportunities for group interaction. Ask him about his rationale for the Institute for Spatial Experiments, though, and the scale of his vision expands further. “I remember a while back calling it ‘Po-Co-Kno’,” he says. “Production, communication, knowledge, production being the studio; communication, the institution; and knowledge, knowledge production. Normally in the artworld these are separated, with knowledge being an education facility. And I think if we look at what all of this is about, it’s about art. 

Never anything else – if there wasn’t art, those three things wouldn’t exist. I think we sometimes forget to focus on why we do all this, and if we look at art, rather than the structures, it’s clear that the potential of art is not necessarily only in the museum; it might be in the art school, in studio processes. Art is now taking on so many different shapes, trajectories, languages – fields of operating – that the structures should fit the work, not vice versa. So one should have an artist’s studio in the museum, and also an art school in the museum, a museum in the art school, and so on, and not be afraid of mixing it.”

That intermingling, I note, extends to his amalgam of artistic and scientific processes. “I have an ongoing relationship with science, but that doesn’t mean I’m interested in changing fields,” says Eliasson. “There are so many methodologies around us, within theoretical discourses, natural science, social science, where systems of criticality can be very easily adapted and used to push art ahead. It’s not to leave art, it’s to gain more specificity and show that art is very easily connected to the world – it shouldn’t be marginalised into a disconnected path.”

The most thoroughgoing example of Eliasson’s connection with different methodologies, surely, has been Little Sun, developed with engineer Frederik Ottesen and, says its website, ‘a social business focused on getting clean, reliable, affordable light to the 1.2 billion people worldwide without access to electricity’. Launched in 2012 at Tate Modern, Little Sun is indeed a business, an avowedly humane one aimed at saving energy expenses, reducing CO2 and sparking local business in Africa, ie, distribution for the lights, which have rolled out in the hundreds of thousands and which look like cute schematic sunflowers. But is it art?

In my mind, everything I do is art. But whether it’s art or not has, I think, become secondary to the question, ‘Does it have impact, or not?’ 

“In my mind, everything I do is art. But whether it’s art or not has, I think, become secondary to the question, ‘Does it have impact, or not?’ For me it’s also a way to see that art is capable – not always, but sometimes – of operating with great precision outside of its ivory tower. It’s also a way of looking at the artworld and seeing how far the resources it claims to have translate into action. I started Little Sun to see if I could push something out of the studio; the team’s knowledge – international relations, retail infrastructure, logistics – has influenced the studio in return. And if we ask if this is an art project, we should see the artistic relation: the effort of pushing something out and what it pays back. And maybe this is where the potential really lies. Sometimes we underestimate that, for many people, art is something very different to what we think of it as in the normal artworld.” Eliasson takes a breath. He’s got a story to tell.

“A year ago, I was with an elderly woman, very beautiful, just south of Addis Ababa. I was explaining the Little Sun to her and she was holding it in her hand, and I was telling her it would be better for her not to burn petroleum inside her kitchen; it’s very unhealthy, this Little Sun would be cheaper and she could spend the money on something else. She looked at it, and clearly this woman has spent 50 years burning kerosene right up in her face. That’s a tough sell. Then I said, besides that, it’s also art. She was very surprised; she asked what I meant. I said, it’s just a work of art – it’s a source of energy the same way that art can be. She said, ‘Do you mean like in the church?’ That took me by surprise – for her, the only place she would find art would be in the church, probably Coptic paintings. And I said yes, well, exactly. And she smiled, she really smiled and looked at the lamp, and then she really thought it was amazing.”

Now, I confess myself naturally unsure about art’s extended purview, and I’m not wholly convinced that placing melting ice in the middle of a town square is really a cogent wakeup call (I also want to know what energy it took to get it there; ditto over 180 tons of Iceland rock for Riverbed). But Eliasson has a way of at once concretising and abstracting the practical and enlightening – excuse the pun – functions of art that is hard to outthink. ‘Experiment’ is one of his favourite words (along with ‘precision’) and he frames everything he does within the speculative. And when he does – to tune back into his thoughts on Little Sun – you hear things like this:

“This is where the arrogance of market economies falls a little short. I can go out without blinking and say, this originated from somewhere where creativity was the main force. Whether we call it art is, actually, less important; the main thing is, it’s a muscle that carries a certain energy. I’m still looking for the right characterisation of it – because the truth is, I’m now talking to the UN, the World Health Organisation, the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation, and I’m talking about art like I always do, but in the context where ideas about it are very different. It’s to show where art is a force, a dynamic quality. We just need to learn how to translate it to change society, to become a coproducer of reality, a reality machine. Sadly the institutions, museums, etc, have failed this and become places where, by passing in, you step out of society and into some kind of dream palace.” 

An assistant interrupts, asks how it’s going – “Oh, we could talk for two days,” says the artist chivalrously – and taps his watch. I grab my laptop, and Eliasson steps in the elevator and ascends, as is his wont, to the next level.

Olafur Eliasson: Riverbed is on view at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, through 4 January 2015; Eliasson’s Inside the Horizon (2014), a site-specific installation of 43 mirrored columns, can be viewed at the recently inaugurated Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, along with a solo exhibition of his work 17 December through 16 February; for more on Little Sun (2012), see littlesun.com 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of ArtReview