Interview with artist olafur eliasson on Design Boom
Since the founding of his studio in 1995, olafur eliasson has engaged audiences across the globe with an extensive and important body of work spanning sculpture, painting, photography, film, and installation. the danish/icelandic artist has set his monumental projects both in and around civic space and within museum institutions, each embodying his interests in perception, movement, experience, and feelings of self.
His urban artworks like ‘your rainbow panorama‘ — a 150-metre circular, colored-glass walkway situated on top of aros museum in aarhus, denmark — and more recently ‘ice watch‘ — which has seen 100 tonnes of inland ice relocated onto the danish city streets — seek a participatory dialogue with pedestrians and passers-by, offering an audience outside of institutions to engage with his creative undertakings. within museums, various sites from the louisiana museum of modern art to paris’ fondation louis vuitton change the ways in which viewers experience art and the architecture it is set within, relayed through works like ‘riverbed‘ — a giant landscape which unfolds throughout the south wing of the gallery — and ‘contact‘ — a light phenomenon which passes along the circumference of an open gallery space.
With a catalog of work that roots itself within significant societal interests, and a study of geometry that has informed his work for decades, designboom speaks to eliasson about his ongoing interest in all things circular and spherical, and his artistic thinking that challenges the way people perceive culture, community, and climate change.
designboom: what originally made you want to become an artist?
olafur eliasson: my father was an artist as well as a cook on a fishing boat, so I grew up with his artworks and lots of art books. funnily enough, my first physical introduction to the kind of thinking that goes into art making actually came through breakdancing. I started dancing in my early teens, and I became very obsessed with the awareness that dancing gives you of your body and space.
DB: who, or what, has been the biggest influence on your work to date?
OE: having an artist for a father; my mother, who organized drawing lessons for me with an artist; robert rauschenberg’s goat with a tyre (monogram, 1955–59); the fall of the berlin wall in 1989; seeing claude monet’s water lilies (1914–26) at moma; the james turrell skyspace at moma ps1, new york (meeting, 1986); west coast light and space artists, such as robert irwin; reading a thousand plateaus, by gilles deleuze and felix guattari, in the early nineties; gordon matta-clark’s cutting in half of a house (splitting, 1974); the quicksilver-like policeman in terminator 2; the berlin art scene from 1994 to 1999; francisco varela’s brilliant book ethical know-how: action, wisdom, and cognition; the efforts being made by tania singer, director of the department of social neuroscience at the max-planck-institute in leipzig, to change the world through compassion; my studio team; and, hopefully, the global success of cop21 in paris.
DB: what are the differences between setting your work within institutions in comparison to the public space?
OE: in a museum, the framework is clearly present. museums offer structures and communications that affect how viewers experience art. I don’t necessarily go against the signature of the museum, but I do try to make it explicit. I’d like people to become aware that the museum is also a construct, that the artworks and experiences are relative to the users and to how the space is programmed. exhibiting in public space always entails working in a participatory way, but I actually don’t really distinguish between the two; public spaces also have their own regulatory premises, their hidden or visible ideologies, and the museum is very much part of the world – entering a museum may even make you come closer to the world.
DB: what are you currently interested in and how does it feed into your creative thinking?
OE: art and creativity have much to offer the world outside the arts. artistic thinking is based on constant awareness of potentiality – of the idea that reality is malleable, relative, and that, through my actions, I can affect and change the world. art can touch people deeply; experience isn’t just in the head, it’s embodied. I’m speaking with more and more people who understand the scope of what art can do; people from the EU, from various corners of the UN, people working in remote parts of ethiopia, nepal. . . . even in davos, at the world economic forum, the arts are slowly leaving the entertainment side program and taking up a more prominent role. people are realizing that climate change and energy inequality, for instance, can be addressed with some force through art. and I’ve grown passionate about these topics. in 2012, I created ‘little sun‘, the solar-powered lamp and social business, together with frederik ottesen, and, last october, I did the intervention ‘ice watch’ in copenhagen, which marked the publication of the UN IPCC’s fifth annual assessment report on climate change.
DB: in what ways does ‘ice watch‘ build upon themes of global and environmental issues you have explored in your earlier pieces?
OE: interestingly, when I did ‘the weather project’ at tate modern back in 2003, climate change wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. at the time, the work was received as being about the museum as a stage, about sociality, embodiment, being singular plural. only later did people start thinking about it in relation to the climate – and I think that’s just fine. the work is open to this shift in attention. it welcomes it. even when I did ‘your waste of time’ in 2006, which anticipated ‘ice watch’ in some respects, climate change wasn’t really on the global agenda. it was also not what drove me to bring chunks of hundreds-of-years-old icelandic ice into an art gallery for visitors to touch them. the focus then was on direct, visceral experience – which has long been central to my art practice.
from this, I realized that encountering old ice may have extraordinary effects, and in 2014 I did ‘ice watch’ in city hall square in copenhagen with minik rosing, a geologist and great friend. when you touch an old block of melting greenlandic inland ice, you physically feel the reality of time passing and climate change in a way different to reading the newspaper or through numbers and scientific data. this is where the arts speak a strong, direct language. in two minutes, ‘ice watch’ can communicate more than can be said in 700 pages of a scientific report.
Read the rest of the interview on Design Boom