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Olafur Eliasson Collecting sunshine, connecting the world (Part 1)

Art can spur social change, according to Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist best known for monumental installations.

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Olafur Eliasson play

Olafur Eliasson

(Olaf Becker)

Written by Marianne Lentz

He is known for turning rivers green and creating indoor rainbows, for double sunsets and upside down waterfalls.

But ultimately, artist Olafur Eliasson wants people to meet and feel connected to the world.

Ogojiii asked him about his involvements in Ethiopia and how he uses art for social change.

On a page in Olafur Eliasson’s sketchbook from 1994 is a simple drawing of a trembling hand in motion.

Below is written nehmen ist schöner als geben, which is German for “receiving is better than giving”.

Olafur Eliasson's studio play

Olafur Eliasson's studio

(Olaf Becker)


On the opposite side of the sketchbook is a small sun, little black streaks emanating from it, indicating sunbeams. The text below simply reads "star".

Only Olafur Eliasson knows whether or not it's a coincidence, but today, more than 20 years later, the two drawings seem to have integrated themselves in the philosophy behind his art.

Both sketches foreshadow his recent and ongoing work in Africa, where he is engaged in several projects ranging from teaching at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa to running 121Ethiopia, an orphanage and trauma management centre for vulnerable children.

Art can spur social change, according to Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist best known for monumental installations such as the Weather Project in Tate Modern in London and the New York City Waterfalls.

Much more than politics and relief aid, art has the potential to make us reconsider the way we do things, he says.

Colour space embracer play

Colour space embracer

(Olaf Becker)


“Throughout history, art has combined thinking and doing. Art is about taking a vision and turning it into reality. In contrast, many problems around the world remain unsolved because there’s a huge disconnect between thinking and doing,” he says, speaking on a Skype connection from his home in Hellerup, a suburb of Copenhagen.

This is where he spends his time when not traveling or working in his Berlin studio. In the background a curly head of hair pops up – it belongs to his daughter Alma Rose, one of the two children Eliasson and his wife adopted in Ethiopia.

Eliasson drew his 1994 sketches while living in Cologne and studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

A year later he moved to Berlin, where he still maintains a well-staffed studio that is part laboratory and part factory.

He employs some eighty people of various professions – craftsmen, engineers, architects, mathematicians, philosophers, art historians – who contribute every step of the way, from the initial idea to the completed work of art.

In other words, when he creates a piece he rarely – if ever – does it alone. He "surfs on other people’s talent," as he puts it.

Life of a planet play

Life of a planet

(Olaf Becker)


And although that is a humble understatement, it says something essential about Eliasson’s methodology in creating his art.

“Art is a perspective through which you can look at the world. In this way, art always relates to its surroundings, art is always part of the world.

"So it makes sense that when making art, you team up with people who know something about all the areas involved in the process.”

The integration of art and other fields of knowledge has become a seamless process for Eliasson.

His art extends far into other fields, and he has never been interested in defining the territories of art, in determining what is art and what is not.

Crystal nebula play

Crystal nebula

(Olaf Becker)


“Deep down I think it’s relative, and beside the point once you put it into use. Calling something art ascribes a value to it that the market economy we otherwise operate in underestimates.”

And even though his visions may seem high-flying and theoretical at times – he frequently refers to French philosophers and thinkers and tosses around terms like “ideology of display”, “singular experience”, “ingroup-outgroup systems” and “theories of decolonisation” when discussing his methodology – his objective is nonetheless to invite as many as possible to experience and be touched by his art.

Perhaps this is another way he has been influenced by his Scandinavian upbringing.

He was born in Denmark in 1967, and his parents, the painter Elias Hjørleifsson and the designer Ingebjørk Olafsdottir, are Icelanders.

Planetary perspective play

Planetary perspective

(Olaf Becker)


Eliasson grew up with the Nordic welfare state and its built-in objective of democratising access to art and culture. But even though this philosophy is no doubt well intentioned, it can lead to a patronising, “educating the masses” top-down approach, he says.

Instead, art institutions should turn the perspective around and start learning from their audience.

“The audience is a major resource. We forget that it is the beholder who co-produces the artwork, who finishes the story and brings it into society.”

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