Olafur Eliasson, Beyond Appearances. An Interview

April 16, 2018

His works can be seen in Geneva, but also Los Angeles, and in the near future, Beijing, before Munich for a summer festival, then Massachusetts. But what makes Olafur Eliasson tick? An interview in Geneva with a widely shown artist who nevertheless remains discreet.

In Geneva, Olafur Eliasson took care to greet every journalist present at the launch of his exhibition Objets définis par l'activité (Objects defined by activity) designed by Laurence Dreyfus, curator and adviser at the Espace Muraille. This private mansion, founded by collectors Caroline and Éric Freymond, is an ideal setting for Eliasson’s human-sized works. With restrained and sober elegance, the artist goes over the key points in his professional life: the environment, light, his projects, his proclivity for social contact…

AMA: What is the subject of your new exhibition “Objects defined by activity” at the Espace Muraille?

Olafur Eliasson: This rather intimate exhibition presents sixteen pieces, some of which are preparatory works - and not models - for future, larger projects. Others were produced for the occasion. My works bear ties with science and allude, through geometric systems, light, movement, and flows, to our way of perceiving objects, space, our environment, and others.

AMA: Indeed, many pieces play on optical illusions and the way we see things, such as "The We Mirror", "Colour Window" or "Day and Night Lava"...

Olafur Eliasson: These works translate our skill for grasping the world, and the way our senses can help us to change it. These are, in some way, “instruments” that exacerbate our way of perceiving the world.

Let’s take, for example, The We mirror. This three-dimensional dodecagon plays with its image in the mirror, superposed over its material reality... But does this reflection really express what we see? The way we see things isn’t always the one that we trust. Is it a metaphor? More like a representation of the principle of illusions that interpret the Universe...

AMA: In the second room, the three delicate water colors are intriguing... What do they represent?

Olafur Eliasson: This almost abstract work was obtained by superimposing chromatic layers. One of the three watercolors presents color washes interrupted by a melting piece of ice. During our trials and adding of layers, either the water embellished the watercolor or else, from time to time, it completely destroyed the effects of the pigments on paper. As the fruit of teamwork and time, these works allude to climate imbalance and inspire environmental awareness.

AMA: Let’s talk a bit more about this issue: the impact of humans on the planet is a recurring theme in your work. How, generally, does this idea come through?

Olafur Eliasson: Through installations that tend to be imposing, stirring reflection on light, space, the environment, organic shapes and elements. In 2014, one wing of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in Humlebæk, near Copenhagen, rallied together to welcome Riverbed, to draw attention to our perception of nature.

In 2015, during the climate summit in Paris, Ice Watch - representing a clock face using iceberg fragments from Greenland - was displayed on the Place du Panthéon.

In 2016, we occupied the gardens of the Château de Versailles with Waterfall, the same way that in 2008 we set up a gigantic waterfall under Brooklyn Bridge in New York...

I generally attempt to raise environmental awareness and turn interest towards the urgent ecological phenomenon that we are witnessing.

AMA: You also seem to nurture a special relationship with light, as here with "Black Sunglasses" or "Wavelength Lamp", but also in "The Weather Project", your big installation at the Tate Modern in 2004 in London. Where does this inclination come from?

Olafur Eliasson: It dates back to my childhood. In 1972-1973, I was five years old. Then came the petrol crisis which also affected Iceland. In the evening, the town where I lived would cut electricity to save on energy. My father’s family would witness a splendid spectacle, with natural light from outdoors penetrating the inside of homes.

Together, we’d go to the windows to admire the fjords and glacier bathed in the bluish light of dusk. This phenomenon really left an impression on me...

AMA: Light is also what drove you to set up the social enterprise Little Sun with engineer Frederik Ottesen. What does this consist of?

Olafur Eliasson: Thanks for asking me this question because this global-scale project is particularly dear to my heart. Today, Little Sun is a foundation, but it’s first and foremost a small rechargeable lamp, aimed at populations without electricity. Hundreds of thousands of these small lamps have already been sold all over the world.

When, for example, a family in Africa buys one for eight dollars, after three months it will save one dollar per week on the sum spent on buying petrol for oil lamps. This object, introduced into schools, helps improve the education of children. Thanks to Little Sun, little girls can also study one hour more per day in the evening.

This lamp - which I designed - therefore promotes equality of the sexes, but also has an impact on health, the environment, and also overturns the economic model. We’re very proud of it!

AMA: So for your multiple projects, you work with different fields of activity. How are you organized?

Olafur Eliasson: In fact, I have several studios. The oldest one, the Olafur Eliasson Studio, was set up in 1995 in a former brewery in Berlin. It employs 80 to 100 people including scientists, technicians, architects, designers, but also art historians, archivists, craftspeople, filmmakers.

We also have two cooks and a communication team: all helping to produce works, organize exhibitions and contribute towards the publication and distribution of works. Then four years ago, architect Sebastian Behmann and I also set up Studio Other Spaces, with the aim of undertaking projects to do with architecture and public space. Finally, I can also mention another studio in Reykjavik, Iceland.

And then there’s my little studio in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia...

AMA: In Ethiopia?

Olafur Eliasson: Yes, I’ve been going there regularly for fifteen years because I teach in the capital’s School of Arts and Design. Transmission and sharing of knowledge is also part of my approach.

From 2009 to 2014, I also taught at the University of the Arts in Berlin, a city where I also directed the Institut für Raumexperimente, a centre for space experiments. In my studios, we often organize workshops and seminars. All these initiatives contribute towards creating links and harmony, together.

AMA: What are your current projects?

Olafur Eliasson: Since 25 March, my work has been showing at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing - my first solo exhibition in this capital city.

The unspeakable openness of things presents an immersive light installation dealing with climate change. Since this is a global issue, as for my previous works, what’s most important for me is the relationship that the visitor weaves with the artwork. And then, I’m thinking about opening a fish restaurant at the port of Reykjavik.

You know, my father was a cook on a fishing boat, and my sister [editorial note: Victoria Elliasdottir] is a chef in a restaurant in Berlin...

Objets définés par l’activité, until 28 April. Espace Muraille, 5 place des Casemates, Geneva, Switzerland.
The unspeakable openness of things, until 12 August. Red Brick Art Museum, Shunbai Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing.
Reality Projector, until 26 August. Marciano Art Foundation, 4357 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, USA.

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Featured image: Olafur Eliasson at Espace Muraille, via Instagram.

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