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Olafur Eliasson: art that connects society and science

Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson is one of the artists most present not only with his exhibitions in the leading museums, but also in the public space with grand and popular installations and architectural interventions inspired by natural phenomena like waterfalls, sunsets, rivers, fog, and by the limits of our senses. His artworks are accessible to the big audience for the ability to involve the spectators, and are appreciated by the most important critiques and curators for their deep conceptual and scientific fundament. It doesn’t surprise that he is the first artist to be commissioned a solo show by the recently opened Foundation Louis Vuitton, located in the criticised new “wow” building of the French capital by archistar Frank Gehry.

Photos by Iwan Baan, 2014.

Olafur Eliasson - Map for unthought thoughts, 2014 Photo Iwan Baan

Open from December 17 until February 16, “Contact” unfolds mainly in the  “grotto” (underground floor), while the rest of the building is occupied by an exhibition about, again, Frank Gehry, and group shows with other major contemporary artists. The choice of Eliasson by director Suzanne Pagé is safe: a former architect himself, not many other artists would have been able to make the best use of this very characterised space. When Eliasson conceives a show, he thinks of the whole experience, from the moment you buy the ticket, to the way out. You enter “Contact” by twisting a meteorite like a knob of a door opening to the outer space.

Olafur Eliasson , Contact, 2014 Photo Iwan Baan

In fact the show takes you to huge dark spaces where lights and shadows phenomena are set to disorient and “expand the imagination”, and smaller spaces where we can look through huge lenses beyond the wall, distorted by watery optical effects. Maybe the most effective piece is the closing one, the Big Bang Fountain, where splashes of water are lit by stroboscopic lights in a pitch dark space, giving the idea that the light is liquid itself. On the rooftop of the building, giving a 360 degrees view of the city, a “sun tracker” captures sunlight and reflects it to another installation inside building, a suspended multifaceted crystal.

Eliasson’s relevance and core power, though, goes much beyond his artistic role. His studio in Berlin is a spectacular factory built in an ex brewery in the formerly cool neighbourhood of Prenzlauerberg, now the favourite area for white young German families, populated by almost 100 creatives working on architectural, editorial, scientific, digital, business, and of course artistic projects. While many refer to him as an artist/businessman, his stature is actually more political, pushing with his work, through his impressive network of global decision makers, the topics of global sustainability in science and society. His groundbreaking educational programme “Institut für Raumexperimente” at the University of the Arts in Berlin just came to an end, giving birth to a new brilliant generation of artists like Julius Von Bismarck and Julianne Charrière, and now focusing on festivals and publications. His commercial endeavour Little Sun, sells solar LED lamps designed for the Third World countries, and soon will include phone chargers and other clean energy items. I had the pleasure to help him realise a participatory digital public artwork in collaboration with Ai Weiwei, on the empowerment of freedom of expression, the Moon. Recently he’s positioned 100 tons of ice blocks from Greenland, the amount of inland ice that’s melting every hundredth of a second for global warming, in the City Hall Square in Copenhagen on occasion of the UN IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change.

What is this exhibition adding to your body of work conceptually and under the scientific point of view?

There is a general tendency to try to understand and make explicit the question about the  anthropocene, meaning the relationship between the man-made and the planet. I don’t know if this is the main theme, but it is one of the great topics. After the climate vagueness in Lima in the last weeks, the question is if in the next year the United Nations Convention on Climate Change will perform better. The data, the access to scientific knowledge, the scientists that can produce new models are there, everything seems to be in place. So where is the bottleneck that is holding back the action? To some extent I think it is in the civic society, because there hasn’t been the comprehension yet of how to transmit them the information without doing it in a top down, patronising, alienating, despair-generating way. I believe the cultural sector can contribute to give the answer, because it has a very relevant connection to the civic level, and it realises that the question of the anthropocene is a very complex and interesting one.

Is contributing to this question what you’d like to be remembered for as an artist, or is there something else, like innovating light and space for James Turrell? Or is there a revolution in society you’d like to lead?

Today the truth is so relative that I would like to be remembered for universal things like honesty, friendship. There is not one narrative that I would like to be remembered for. I don’t like the idea of revolutions, if so it would be an inverted and introverted one. Usually revolutions are intended as polarisation, while what we need in the world today is unification. I don’t know if I’m wrong, but what it seems to be happening is that instead of coming closer to each other there is this great sense of separation. We see it in the increasing nationalism and populism in the world.

What do you think about the Icelandic “revolution”?

I don’t think it really qualifies as revolution. The mismanagement of the financial sector led to a shortage of trust in the left-wing government, which sadly failed to build the long term trust it needed because it was too utopian, claiming to revolutionise everything overnight without pragmatic skills. The good intentions were watered out by the escapism of the left wing, so the very first election after the crisis brought back the right wing government that generated the financial collapse, and with very few heads responsible being punished. In general it would be unfair to any revolution in the world saying that the Icelandic movement had any revolutionary aspect.

You are one of the contemporaries more successful in public art. What’s the status today of the accessibility to art, do you think it is becoming a millionaires’ toy?

The access to art has been diversified. Depending on where you move you will think of it as the main realm of exposure for art. If you go only to auction houses, art fairs and wealthy private institutions, you will consider that as the art world, but the truth is that the cultural segment and civic society has a lot of energy for the time being. You have never had so many people in museums around the world. Young theatre, young music, young design are doing really well. The muscle is art, and that is incredibly big and strong, maybe even bigger than it ever was, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the market. I think we should welcome that a lot of people outside of the art world want to be part of it. I think we should celebrate the fact that an organisation like the Foundation Louis Vuitton says “This is what we’re going to do, we’ll be looking at art, this is the interesting thing today”. Of course I need to put my foot down and say “these are my beliefs, this is right and this is wrong”, but I think that I need to recognise that art has never been this accessible, both in an elitist way which is sad, but also in a very popular way.

You moved to Berlin long time before it was cool to do so. If you had 20 years less would you still move to Berlin?

No, actually I would like much better to build my own city and move there. And this is my next project: to build a whole new city.

What do you mean?

I’ll tell you in our next conversation.

To be continued.

by Marcello Pisu