On the eve of his exhibition at the new Fondation Louis Vuitton, the artist discusses his work — which includes a school, an architecture practice, a charity, a cookbook and a herd of Icelandic sheep, and which is meant to make the world a better place. Really.
Credit Nigel Shafran
“Irony or not?” said Olafur Eliasson, looking around the meeting table. At his studio in Berlin, the answer is almost invariably “not,” but perhaps here an exception could be made. Eliasson and a few of his staff were finalizing the title of a new book chronicling the five-year history of the Institut für Raumexperimente, a small art school that Eliasson ran until February. The title under consideration was “How to Make the Best Art School in the World.” “It would be nice to piss off the very academic art schools,” Eliasson said. “I do think we had the best students in the world. But is irony really the economy I want to support?” In the end, Eliasson and his staff agreed that such good-natured braggadocio was pretty harmless in irony terms, although the cover would be designed so that at first glance the book would appear to be titled simply “How to Make.” Eliasson had also ensured that the book would include a photograph of a puppy that one of the students had met on a field trip. “Every book should have a picture of a puppy in it,” he told me, “because it just makes you so happy.”
If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world. One of the most extensive private holdings of his work belongs to the advertising executive Christian Boros, whose appointment-only museum in the Mitte district, the Boros Collection, was originally built as a Nazi air-raid shelter but over the years has also functioned as a banana warehouse and a notoriously debauched techno club. This is the nature of Berlin, where things cascade with contradictory meanings, where “post-” is a ubiquitous prefix, where hipsters chase oblivion in the ruins of old dogmas. Irony is almost always a safe bet here, not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.
Credit Clockwise from top left: Iwan Baan; Ian Reeves/Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Matthew Septimus; Santi Caleca.
Eliasson was born in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents in 1967. His most celebrated work to date is 2003’s “The weather project,” for which the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern was converted into a gigantic, artificial solarium, attracting over the course of six months two million visitors, who often felt compelled to lie down on the floor, spelling out political messages with their bodies or just gazing at themselves and each other in the mirror on the ceiling. My own favorite work of Eliasson’s is “Your waste of time,” an installation at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City last year that consisted of several chunks of ice, detached by seasonal melting from an Icelandic glacier, that had been fished out of a lake, shipped to New York and installed in the refrigerated gallery. There they sat for nearly four months, crystalline but also surprisingly grimy, stout as rock but also frail enough to need their own microclimate — individual and real and lost.
A lot of Eliasson’s works are like this: irruptions of the elemental into a museum setting, as if the building had sprung some mythic leak. Others are harder to convey in a high-concept pitch. When I visited the studio, Eliasson was working on a commission for the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a major new museum that opened in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris last month. In addition to taking over the ground floor for the Fondation’s inaugural temporary show, he would be constructing a permanent “grotto” from which the Frank Gehry-designed building could be flatteringly viewed. Although Eliasson showed me plenty of sketches and models for the exhibition, I never quite formed a clear idea of what he was planning to do, apart from that it involved mirrors and curves and tinted glass. This side of Eliasson’s practice takes the form of a highly refined fun house, subjecting you to experiments in human perception that don’t sound like much until you see them firsthand. The intended effect often seems to be a pre-intellectual wonder, so that you will have basically the same experience as the 5-year-old next to you. There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.
In other words, Eliasson has a faith in the improving power of art that has been out of fashion since Victorian times. But his ambitions aren’t bounded by his studio. He is on friendly terms with Bill Gates, Kofi Annan and Michael Bloomberg, and regularly attends the World Economic Forum in Davos to discuss public policy with the people who make it. “I don’t go there to meet world leaders,” he joked. “I go to become a world leader!” In fact, he already talks like a politician much of the time, with a habit of disappearing into a haze of generalities and wonk-speak and anecdotes of uncertain relevance. The concepts he draws on — inclusivity and engagement and trust and so on — seem to have been filtered to ensure that you could no more be offended by his statements than you could be offended by the colored lights he puts in museums. Yes, he has given a TED talk.
And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving. You sit down with Olafur for a meal and he picks up the fork and stares at it for a moment and you think, Oh my god, he’s either inventing a new fork or wondering how to get forks to people who don’t have forks. ” He added: “After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”
Credit Clockwise from top left: Fg | Architektur & Indechs; Julienne Schaer/Courtesy Public Art Fund; Studio Olafur Eliasson; Nigel Shafran; Maddalena Valeri.
Eliasson has 90 people working for him. Few of them have job titles. Four days a week they all eat a healthy vegetarian lunch together in the light-filled canteen upstairs, with a rotating schedule for washing the dishes afterward. Initially, I found the atmosphere at the studio rather too good to be true, like a hippie cult before night falls. But when I joined Eliasson for lunch on my second day at the studio, I sat there eating my roasted carrots and enviously contemplating how much better my life would be if I, too, received that bounty of vegetables and sunlight and intelligent chatter. Sebastian Behmann, who heads Eliasson’s architecture practice, told me that you can track how long someone has worked at Studio Olafur Eliasson by how much healthier they look every year (and indeed many people have stayed on for a decade or more). Last year, Studio Olafur Eliasson published its own 368-page cookbook of sustainable vegetarian recipes.
This is just one of the unpredictable byproducts of the studio, which often resembles a sort of ongoing Apollo project. Others have included the art school, a full-scale architecture practice, a series of publications, a charity and a herd of Icelandic sheep. As motley as these pursuits may sound, Eliasson would argue that they all emerge from a single mind-set, and that they’ve all been made viable by his years of practical experience as an artist. “If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”
For instance, sheep. “It started with the financial crisis,” Eliasson told me when I asked about his herd. “Björk said everybody must think innovatively. So we started buying up lambs to rescue the Icelandic economy — but I think we ended up burdening it! My mistake was I wanted to turn it into an art project. Still, it was a nice excuse to go to the countryside and drink vodka and play with the sheep.” Eliasson began breeding lambs whose meat would be particularly well-suited to Moroccan tagines, with the intention of selling diced, marinated lamb to delis in Iceland. “I just couldn’t convince my partners that people in Iceland would eat tagine.” In the end, the lambs were slaughtered, their meat frozen and their wool knitted into 20 “secular prayer mats.”
Other ventures have been less quixotic. After they adopted two children from Addis Ababa, Eliasson and his wife, the art historian Marianne Krogh Jensen, started 121Ethiopia, a project that works to improve the lives of children in Ethiopian orphanages. 121Ethiopia operates on a modest scale. Little Sun, Eliasson’s other philanthropic enterprise, does not. Developed with the Danish engineer Frederik Ottesen, the Little Sun is a very efficient solar-powered LED lamp, cheerful in design and lightweight enough to wear around the neck on a lanyard. Since the lamp’s debut in 2012, more than 200,000 have been distributed, over a third of them to regions in Africa with no electricity, the rest at venues like Tate Modern or Coachella. While Eliasson was still discussing the Institut für Raumexperimente book, I was taken upstairs to the Little Sun workshop to meet Felix Tristan Hallwachs, who heads the project. “We’re not going to solve the Ukraine crisis, we’re not going to solve IS [Islamic State],” he said. “But in theory if everyone has a light at home and can study, then you have less chaos in the world, probably.”
If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better. At worst, you could argue that Little Sun makes Eliasson’s talk about the power of museum art look a bit vaporous by comparison. But at Studio Olafur Eliasson the distinction between art and direct intervention is barely even recognized. Hallwachs told me: “Olafur’s work uses media from photography to oil paint to all kinds of installations and architecture. Now business is part of the range of media as well.” Eliasson told me that he was hoping to present a work at the next G7 conference that would evaluate the German public’s degree of trust in Chancellor Angela Merkel and perhaps in the process inspire a renewal of the European relationship with Africa. I asked him whether, in order to achieve such an ambitious and specific political objective he would need to make a new type of work, something more targeted, more explicit. Possibly, he replied — but he would be just as likely to bring along something like “Riverbed,” which consists of a riparian landscape constructed inside the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen from 180 tons of Icelandic bluestone. For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness. Or, perhaps, by helping to get the artist in a room with the energy minister of Nigeria.
If Eliasson had his way, the same “everyone’s invited!” quality that makes his work so appealing to institutions might sometimes be pushed to extremes that would leave even those institutions flustered. Before I left the studio, I related to Eliasson something that happened to me in July last year at Warm Up, the Saturday afternoon dance party held in the courtyard of MoMA PS1. It was oppressively hot and muggy on the outdoor dance floor, and halfway through the afternoon I had the idea of going inside to spend a few minutes with “Your waste of time,” the piece with the chunks of ice, to cool off. Arriving at the gallery, however, my friends and I found that it had been locked for the duration of the event, so we could do no more than press ourselves against the chilly door. When I told Eliasson this story, he looked genuinely pained. “What a pity!” he kept saying. “What a pity! I would have left that door open.” But would he really have wanted drunken revelers slithering over this ancient ice that he’d imported from thousands of miles away? “If the ice melts and disappears — well, maybe it’s beautiful that there was once an iceberg, and then there was a party and now the iceberg is gone.” He pointed out that this would have been an excellent metaphor for man-made climate change. “People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”
“Inside the Horizon,” a specially commissioned grotto by Olafur Eliasson, is now on view at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. An exhibition of Eliasson’s work, the inaugural show at the Fondation, will open on Dec. 17 and run until Feb. 16, 2015.