Interview: Olafur Eliasson

©Collage / Julia ZIerer, Portrait "The Guardian"

Through March 20, 2016 Olafur Eliasson will be holding his “Green Light” workshop for refugees at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation in Vienna. There you’ll also have the chance to discover how one even finds themself in this turbulent world. 

The Little Sun, the small suns rechargeable via light diodes, i.e. LEDs, provides brightness. Artist Ai Weiwei recently distributed it to the children of refugees on Lesbos and in Idomeni.

On March 18, the exhibition “Travel Images from Albrecht Dürer to Olafur Eliasson” will open at Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett.

We spoke to Olafur Eliasson about his work, a fear of strangers, the de-emotionalization of society and the responsibility of art and culture, especially in times like these.

What role does culture play these days?

Olafur Eliasson: Culture is like an additional lung to our society, a lot of air is breathed through it. At the moment Europe finds itself in a strongly xenophobic and defensively polarizing stance. This is quite selfish behavior. I don’t think that we should underestimate the fact that, in Europe, more people work in the cultural sector than in the car industry. The cultural sector, as a part of the European economy, offers a structural contribution that is  very robust.

In every little village there’s a small theater. The teacher, the policeman, the priest, they all work together on winter plays. They know each other. This means that culture is grounded and because of that, it enjoys a culture of trust. This trust has a lot to do with responsibility.

So it’s about trust, in the broadest sense…

Of course, after everything associated with this greedy and irrational totally out of joint behavior, no one trusts the finance sector these days. On the other hand, populist tendencies are showing strong results in politics, which is why you can’t really trust them anymore. You can’t trust anything more than culture and with that I’m not even talking about art. I think it’s interesting to observe society. Even if it doesn’t mean that you’re somehow improving it, I think the cultural sector, including art, isn’t looking so bad. Because everything else looks so dumb.

How important is art to you in relationship to society?

I think that art is a part of the cultural structure. I think it’s very important that culture is taken seriously as a central element in the social machine. That’s how I see myself as a participant. No less than any other, but also as more active than most members of society.

What does good art mean to society?

Our society suffers from an emotional deficit. There’s a poverty of the senses. This doesn’t just have to do with self-perception, it has to do with our intense fear of the unfamiliar. It also has to do with how I see myself: as a product or producer. In this sense, art offers the chance to become its own conscious de-emotionalization. Of course art is rarely the one and only solution. But basically, dealing with something abstract is incredibly attractive and downright “healthy” for man and society. It’s also undoubtedly difficult.

In what sense is art also difficult?

You don’t consume a work of art. Not at all. To be inspired by a work of art means that in a sense one “produces.” As a viewer, you produce an experience from it. When someone is in a bad mood and they look at images at that moment, then they’ll see exactly what they projects onto the image, thus “producing” it for themself. And that’s how one goes from consumer to producer.

When I accuse society of de-emotionalization it usually has to do with a lack of confidence – that someone trusts themselves or is willing to see or encounter themselves.

What role do museums play in de-emotionalization?

These days people go into museums with expectations of something being “delivered” –  as though they were movie theaters. But they don’t have to be proactive in the world to encourage it. I think that’s really interesting. If museums could also be confident in not just delivering a program to make politicians happy a lot could be achieved.

How would you describe your own personal process in a work, from conception to implementation?

The distance between an idea and action is greater than anyone thinks. What makes the artistic process interesting is this: You have an idea, which at the outset is hard to put into words. Many it’s just an instinctual or intuitive idea or some little thing that’s creating stress. Ideas can also be uncomfortable. If this idea makes its way into the sketch phase, then the first step is done.

You always think that you have to think forward from the idea, but sometimes it’s worth looking at where the idea came from. Then, suddenly, there’s a thought that isn’t conceived of as a point anymore, rather as a line. It has a past. Suddenly, you have a clear way forward. The path then goes from sketch into model. Suddenly, you feel how an idea comes into being.

Sometimes a lot of time passes in between, sometimes it’s quite fast. Sometimes a body consists of words, sometimes it comes from theater or dance or a situation. At any rate, that’s the deciding moment when it transforms into a body, because if it has a body then it’s a part of this world.

How does it feel to be a part of the world through art?

For me, when I feel that what I make has consequences, it’s  connected to a feeling of incredible happiness. Maybe it’s not huge and it’s marginalized in our society or barely perceptible, but at least you’re not feeling isolated from society. You’re not in a I-don’t-care mood.

For me, this is exactly what makes art so interesting: this process of implementation and the influence of not only space and society, but also time. After the completion of an artwork, after one of these processes, then after a week, a month, even a year, the artwork isn’t finished or a new process starts: the process of the recipient. The visitor to a museum, for example, sees the work and in the best case it becomes a part of their memory and stays with them.

How does one get people interested in art?

I think it’s very important to be inspired by art through your own engagement. This is strongly connected to the fact that you can sense it in yourself and develop it within yourself and for yourself, maybe even unconsciously. I that that a lot can be achieved with the potential of art, creativity can make a difference. Everyone can do it, the only thing that’s missing is confidence.

How do you deal with doubt?

Doubt is like a tool. I know that on every board of directors and in every definition of the word in economic education doubt is a counter-productive word. You’re undecided, which is a societal taboo. No one trusts themselves to say that they’re confused. There’s also something protective about it. Conservatism is often packages as doubt: I doubt that this is the right decision. This only means that I don’t think this is the right decision.

But true doubt also has to do with the fact that you’re not even able to put your emotional state into words and because of that you don’t know how to feel about things. That is to say, it’s exposing yourself, which makes you quite vulnerable and it shows. But if you trust in it, then you’re really strong. The way I see it, no one even dares.


Little Sun

Olafur Eliasson has developed Little Sun in collaboration with engineer Frederik Ottesen. For three years the light source, and thereby the social undertaking, has traveled the world.  Little Sun is a solar lamp in the form of a small sunflower. To date, Little Sun has achieved success in 12 African countries. “We’re mainly working in areas that don’t have access to electricity.” Now there’s a new project: the Little Sun charger for cell phones that are charged through small solar panels through the energy of the sun.

Ai Weiwei distributes the “Little Suns” to children of refugees on Lesbos and in Idomeni

Translation: Alicia Reuter