Olafur Eliasson on tech in art and Berlin's "exceptional people"

12 February 2015

A “giddy joy” was described as the feeling evoked by the artwork of Olafur Eliasson when we interviewed him for last year’s Autumn edition of Printed Pages, and with his monumental, often participatory pieces, it’s not hard to see why. From his incredible 2003 Weather Project at Tate Modern to its portable, socially-conscious, tiny counterpart Little Sun(which “produces clean, affordable, and portable solar-powered lamps to areas of the world without reliable access to electricity”), his work is a glorious, utterly original ray of light shining on the sometimes impenetrable art world.

With Olafur just announced as one of the judges of the Wired and The Space’s Creative Fellowship awards, which selects three emerging digital artists to be given a share of £100,000 to realise their projects, he tells us about his studio, his love of Berlin, and how he reckons emerging artists can best embrace new technologies.

What was your practice like when you first started?

I established the Berlin studio in 1995. Back then Berlin was a difficult place to live and work.
In 1997, I met the geometer and architect Einar Thorsteinn, and soon after, he moved from Iceland to Berlin and started working at my studio. He was one of the first of many experts to work at the studio, and the starting point for the experiments that take place here. Today, everybody who works in the studio is a specialist.

How does the process of collaboration work between everyone in the studio?

There are people here who are good at things that I lack skills in, web programmers, for instance. But it’s actually not just about the combination of skills needed to realise diverse projects. It’s also about personal engagement and the relationships between different people from different disciplines, and this allows the studio to keep on moving and evolving, not only in size but also in terms of growing knowledge and energy.


Olafur Eliasson: The weather project, Tate Modern London, 2003


Tomas Gislason
: Olafur Eliasson with Little Sun © 2012 Little Sun

Your practice seems to draw equally from nature and tech – can you tell us a bit more about how you look to those fields in creating your work?

I do not necessarily see them as discrete fields. I do not think that nature is something separate from humanity or from technology and culture. But in general I work as an artist rather than as a scientist, so the process of making that leads from an initial feeling, intuition, or idea to a work of art is central for me, and who knows where it can end.

What I really loved about The Weather Project installation was how much fun it was, and how you didn’t need knowledge of art history or contemporary art to enjoy it and participate in it. How important is that sort of democracy for you?

I resist telling people what to feel or think when looking at my work. Viewing art is a rare moment when we can all come together and share an experience – we can agree and we can disagree. When else does that happen?

A lot of your work seems to play with quite postmodern ideas of simulation and simulacra, what’s real and what isn’t. How far do you see your work fitting into that sort of context?

I like to think that reality is relative. This idea is in fact quite empowering because it means that through personal engagement, you can have an effect on the world. Similarly, I see my works as models, even when they are full-scale architectural constructions, like Your rainbow panorama, in Aarhus, Denmark, or the facades of Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in Reykjavik. A work that rests on a table could be a parliament or a city or an idea. They are models for thinking, for understanding, and for perceiving the world.


Olafur Eliasson: Big Bang Fountain
Foundation Louis Vuitton Paris, Big Bang Fountain, 2014. Olafur Eliasson Studio.

How best can artists harness digital media, social networking and new technologies in their practice?

I think it is important to approach digital media not simply from the perspective of what the technologies can do, but rather to consider what meaning they carry into society. This is what Ai Weiwei and I tried to do in our online collaborative platform, Moon, which invites users to add their own virtual marks to the surface of a glowing sphere. Since its launch, a landscape of incredibly varied submissions has developed, so the work is a product of both individual expression and collective participation.

Why do you choose to base your studio in Berlin?

There is such an influx of exceptional people here. Berlin has close ties with London and New York, but it is still partly removed from the art market and because of that it is more unpredictable – it has a kind of introspective criticism. I like that very much.

You’re judging the Wired/The Space Creative Fellowship. What will you be looking for in applicants?

What interests me are innovations that make use of digital technology’s amazing potential to transcend borders. I am excited by things that not only invite participation but are dependent upon the people who use them.

What’s next for you?

I want to explore more possibilities of providing platforms for art and creativity. The arts have an incredible potential for expanding interconnectedness, for reaching people, touching them, and increasing empathy and compassion in the world. This is why digital platforms make perfect sense for art and creativity, and this is also why I initiated a project like Little Sun [more on that here ], which produces clean, affordable, and portable solar-powered lamps to areas of the world without reliable access to electricity. Later on this year, we will launch a new mobile charger, which will hopefully bring even more people in contact with one another.


Olafur Eliasson: Drawings from The Moon, 
2013, Olafur Eliasson Studio.


Olafur Eliasson: Lava Kaleidoscope, neugerriemschneider, Olafur Eliasson Studio, 2012


Olafur Eliasson: Little Sun 1, 2012, Olafur Eliasson Studio.


Olafur Eliasson: Little Sun, Milan, 2012. Marco Beck Peccoz, Olafur Eliasson Studio.


Olafur Eliasson: Moon, 2013, Olafur Eliasson Studio.

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About the Author

Emily Gosling

Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.

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