The Earth's Resident Artist: interview with Olafur Eliasson
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
If such a position existed, Olafur Eliasson might well be appointed as the Earth’s resident artist. Growing up in rural Iceland in the early 70s, his work is profoundly influenced by the natural phenomena and landscapes of his homeland. His large-scale, immersive, often mechanical, installations aim to recreate and reconnect us to nature: Waterfalls (2008) features artificial cascades in New York’s Hudson River; Moss Wall (1994) covers a giant canvas in delicate white lichen and Green River (1998) dyes waterways bright green. His work has been described as a kind of smoke and mirrors ‘technological sublime’ that invokes the spirit of the Romantics.
Although highly conceptual, Olafur Eliasson’s artwork has none of the coldness or inaccessibility that this might initially suggest. Attending ‘In Real Life’, at London’s Tate Modern in August 2019 (the height of the school holidays), not only did children outnumber adults in their assertively curious appreciation of the works, but adults became children, as they underwent the playful disorientations that Eliasson’s works so frequently demand.
Deliberately provocative, the ‘real’ of the show’s title refers to a more immediate and embodied way of being that is largely lost in our hypermediated lives – a theme that stems from Eliasson’s study of phenomenology, and his teenage passion for breakdancing.
Conspicuously absent from In Real Life was The Weather Project, an installation which recreated a misty sunscape in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003. Drawing two million visitors, it became a foundational work of climate-focused art. For many, like me, who did not visit, the work carries a folkloric status, recoverable only as amateur footage or through anecdotes of those who did. Its riotous crowds famously spelled out ‘Fuck Bush’ with their bodies, protesting the Iraq War. The work’s subversiveness was grounded in the way it invited bodies to assemble, what Judith Butler would call a ‘plural for[m] of performative action’.
Today, Eliasson’s Berlin based studio is a hub of interdisciplinary research with a focus on climate action. In 2017 they launched Little Sun, a charitable project providing solar lamps to some of the 1.2 billion people without electricity, and in 2016 they published Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen, a recipe book of nutritious, seasonal and vegetarian meals which, when eaten in unison act as a powerful form of social and environmental praxis. In the wake of In Real Life, I asked Eliasson about his commitments to ecology, how art can be more sustainable, and why feelings matter.
Although you have consistently explored the theme in your work, in the past few years there has been a renewed attention to questions of climate in your work. What caused this shift?
It’s interesting that, when I did The Weather Project, the climate was not the first thing that people spoke about. Now it is almost impossible to think about that artwork without discussing issues like climate change and the Anthropocene. In 2003, I was also only beginning to turn to environmental questions. My interest in what surrounds a work of art, in what makes up our broader understanding of an experience, led me to thinking about our effects on the climate.
I’ve been interested in the thought of Bruno Latour, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett, for instance – they’ve influenced me and led me to reconsider my own relationship to the environment. My generation is probably the last that will take nature for granted. I used to think nature was separate from culture, and now I see that this is not the case; that Iceland, where I spent a lot of my holidays, is not unadulterated wildlands, but the landscape has been shaped for hundreds of years, if not longer, by human activity. As Latour would say: ‘There is no outside’.
Do you think art has done enough to engage with and visualize climate crisis? Is this changing?
The one thing is spreading awareness, which I do feel is changing, with more and more people conscious of and declaring climate emergency. The other thing is the material causes of climate change and here the art world is complicit, just like the rest of the world. This becomes apparent when you start looking into sustainable transport alternatives, for instance, which my studio is engaged in at the moment, since transport makes up a considerable part of the carbon footprint of contemporary art. There are simply very few low-carbon options out there and the transport companies are not particularly transparent about their routes. I am hopeful that with more and more people engaged in this conversation, we can find systemic solutions.
Your work explores ideas of collectivity and co-participation, particularly as it brings people together in temporary communities. This invites comparison with protest movements like Extinction Rebellion, Occupy, the Trump Marches or Greta Thunberg’s School Strikes. Is your art a space of protest?
I’m not a protest-kind of artist, to be honest, but I share with Extinction Rebellion the ideal of co-producing meaning in public space through physical engagement, and I respect their work a lot. They’ve done so much to move climate change into the realm of public awareness, and the courage with which some of them work is really extraordinary. More generally, I find that culture and art offer spaces where we come together to share experiences, to discuss and disagree, and this disagreement is not only accepted, it is actually welcome. They are somehow safer and more honest than the spaces of traditional politics. I have compared them to a kind of on-the-ground parliament, welcoming of anyone who wishes to participate in the co-production of the experience.
The full article is available in issue 4 of It's Freezing in LA!. Illustrated by Matthew Lewis, designer of IFLA!.