Eliasson has moved his art into the field of social entrepreneurship and functional design.
Written by Marianne Lentz
Ottesen, whose expertise in solar energy helped create the first solar power-driven plane, pointed out that for the first time in history solar panels have become so affordable, batteries sufficiently long-lasting, and LED light bulbs so powerful that it is possible to make a very bright lamp with very little solar power and a small battery.
They discussed the consequences of not having access to light and the irony that the continents with the most natural sunlight most often suffer from an insufficient or non-existent power supply.
The sun set as they talked, and in their excitement they did not think of turning on the lights.
“And we realised that if we had gathered a bit of the sun with our solar panels while it was still there and put it into a battery, we would have had light enough to see where we put our beers.”
So the idea behind Little Sun was born. A small lamp shaped like a sunflower, no bigger than a hand.
On the back, a solar panel connects to a rechargeable battery. Five hours in the sun translates into five hours of clean, clear light.
During his trips to Ethiopia, Eliasson had realised that not having access to energy had profound consequences.
For the 1.6 billion people in the world without electricity, kerosene lamps filled with petroleum are common – and so are the respiratory diseases and burns that they cause every day.
But instead of creating something merely functional, Eliasson and Ottesen set out to make a work of art.
“Besides addressing the issue of energy access, this is also a question of: how does it feel to have power? What is self-esteem? How does it feel to be capable of taking your life into your own hands and doing something with it?” Eliasson asks rhetorically.
By giving people off the grid their own micro power station, the lamp contributes to a sense of empowerment.
Eliasson compares it to picking a bowl of berries – a child can collect a piece of sun and use it that evening to do homework by.
“There’s a connection between having energy in your hand and feeling energy in your heart. It makes you feel resourceful, it energises you.”
The battery in each Little Sun lamp can be recharged 900 times, giving it a lifespan of roughly three years, during which it will produce 10 times more light than a kerosene lamp at a tenth of the cost.
Little Sun costs US$12 in the developing world, US$23 in the developed world. In other words, it isn’t free. It’s a business. And it needs to be.
Even though the purpose of the lamp is to provide families in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe with a healthier, less polluting, and cheaper source of light than the common kerosene lamps that contribute to respiratory diseases responsible for 2 million deaths in Africa every year, Eliasson insists that his motive for creating it was selfish.
He adds that this is the only meaningful and respectful way for him as a Westerner to be deeply involved in Africa.
Which brings us back to the two sketches Eliasson drew as a 24-year-old art student in Cologne.
The handshake with the line “receiving is better than giving” has become idiosyncratic with regard to his engagement in Ethiopia and setting up the Little Sun project.
“I don’t go to Ethiopia to give or teach something,” he says. “I go there because I want to bring something back home with me.”
What does he bring home with him? The same things he brings back from other places he visits around the world, such as Brazil, the US, China: new business opportunities, great experiences, knowledge about art practices.
“By insisting on this approach, my way of behaving, speaking, and working in Ethiopia is automatically affected. As a starting point, I choose to see Ethiopia as a resourceful country.
"Sure, I can acknowledge that it has some structural challenges, but the most fruitful way to address these challenges is to focus on what’s working instead of what isn’t,” he says.
With Little Sun and 121Ethiopia, the orphanage and trauma management centre that he runs with his wife, Eliasson has moved his art into the field of social entrepreneurship and functional design.
Currently, around 285 000 Little Suns have been distributed and sold around the world. Eliasson and Ottesen call it “a work of art that works in life”.
But what makes a solar-powered lamp designed to improve the quality of life into off-the-grid art?
According to Eliasson, the answer is simple enough: it’s art because he says it is.
“It’s been designed in the same way as my other works. And it accomplishes everything involved when I create a work of art.
“Everyone wants a beautiful object, something that they can use with pride, something that is not just about functionality, but also about spirituality.
"The fact that there is a business model involved doesn’t exclude it from being art. In fact, the business model, the delivery, and the sense of community are also the artwork.”
To exemplify this logic, he tells a story. When testing the sales value of Little Sun, he visited a small shop in Addis Ababa.
The shop owner, Jadid, initially rejected Eliasson’s proposal that he sell the lamp at a retail price of US$12.
Jadid sells cigarettes out of the package and chewing gum piece by piece. The price of the lamp was twice the price of his most expensive item, which never sold, he said.
“But besides being a lamp, it’s also a work of art,” Eliasson insisted.
Jadid looked perplexed for a moment. “A work of art, what do you mean? Like in church?”
This time Eliasson was the one who looked perplexed. “Yes, like in church.”
Jadid thought this was wonderful and agreed to try to sell the lamps.
“And it’s completely irrational and emotional,” Eliasson says. “But the emotional motivation is a lot more important than we think.
"In the process of designing Little Sun, we wanted it to express joy and positivity. It’s about ascribing importance to the non-quantifiable – something that is constantly done in the art world.”
And the fact that mentioning art made Jadid think of the church is crucial, Eliasson says: “It may sound trivial, but in essence it led Jadid to attribute spirituality to something outside the Church. And this power the Church has to engage people in something spiritual – I think it’s important that we are able do this in the secular world as well, that Jadid can do this in his shop.”
“And what besides art has the potential to take this incredibly great leap?”