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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Olafur Eliasson: when art meets science


Olafur Eliasson with Little Sun

Olafur Eliasson is a peculiar character in the art field, it is possible to say that he has changed what it means to be an artist. His vast curiosity brings him to diversify his interests and his works in design, architecture, ecology, food, education, sustainability, climate change, perception and collective activity.

His works speak to so many different people all around the world. His contacts with scientists, architects, chefs, choreographers, politicians, businessmen present him an opportunity to work together and in his deep optimism to create together a better world.

Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 in Denmark from Icelandic parents. A part from a short career as a breakdancer, he decided to enrol in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts till 1995. In New York he worked as an assistant to the artist Christian Eckart in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and after his certification from the Royal Danish Academy he decided to move to German, first to Cologne and after in Berlin where he has his studio in the old brewery in Prenzlauer Berg.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to see one of his exhibitions “In Real Life” in the Tate Modern of London, where 40 works were exhibited involving and shaking up your sensorial point of view.

Eliasson puts experience at the centre of his art. He wants that the visitor feels an experience that affects the four senses and might also become more aware of the people around you with whom you form a temporary community. The artist believes that art can have a strong impact on the world outside the museum.

To summarise, three are the concepts and interests of his art: his concern with nature, honed through his time spent in Iceland; his research into geometry; and his ongoing investigations into how we perceive, feel about and shape the world around us.

Eliasson uses natural elements as light, water, fog with mirrors, colourful glasses and stainless-steel frames to create his captivating installations.

Among his early works, he used lights to alter the experience of space and architecture.

The light joined with geometry allowed him to create kaleidoscopic installations that are not just aesthetically beautiful and magic objects but they offer a multiple and colourful reflections fracture and at the same time a different perspectives at once, that brings together the space inside and outside.

Olafur Eliasson, In Real Life, 2019
Olafur Eliasson, Wirbelwerk, 2012, Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich

Eliasson realised a series of hanging kaleidoscopic spheres as In Real Life 2019, a large sphere composed of folded modules of anodised aluminium held together by tense metal cables.

The modules support panes of coloured glass (green, yellow, orange, red, pink and blue); a lamp at the centre of the sphere shines out to project a colourful pattern of light and shadow onto the surroundings.

The artist is particularly interested in spirals, as they create a sense of energy within the object and outside it through the shadow and light play on the surrounding walls.

A beautiful example is the work Wirbelwerk 2012, that extends 8 metres down from the top of the atrium of the Lenbachhaus Museum of Munich in Germany.

Olafur Eliasson, Your spiral view, 2002

The spiral and the kaleidoscopic structure are joined with the architecture in the work Your spiral view 2002, an approximately eight-metre-long tunnel constructed from steel plates that are assembled into two sets of spirals coiling in opposite directions. Inside the work, visitors find themselves within a kaleidoscope, in which the space they have just left is reflected fragmentarily together with the view out the other side. The reflections enhance the dizzying sense of movement created by the jagged walls.

Olafur Eliasson, Din blinde passager (your blind passenger), 2010

Din blinde passager (your blind passenger) 2010, is a long narrow corridor and visitors are temporarily blinded by brightly illuminated fog that requires them to rely on other senses to orient themselves. As they progress through the corridor, they move through zones of different hues. ‘Blind passenger’ is the Danish expression for a stowaway.

Olafur Eliasson, Your uncertain shadow (colour), 2010

Another light experiment engaging the community is Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010.

The work is composed by five coloured spotlights, directed at a white wall: a green light positioned next to another green light, followed by a magenta light, an orange light, and, finally, a blue light.

When the visitor enters the space, her projected shadow, by blocking each coloured light from a slightly different angle, appears on the wall as an array of five differently coloured silhouettes.

Light for Eliasson is also energy and energy of course is the solar one.

Olafur Eliasson, Sun Has no Money, 2007, exhibeted in Cuneo, Church of Saint Francis 2021

At the beginning of the year there was an exhibition in Cuneo Italy in the Church of Saint Francis titled: “E luce fu. Giacomo Balla, Lucio Fontana, Olafur Eliasson, Renato Leotta”, where Eliasson exhibited the work Sun has no money.

The work consists in two circles with mirrors in which the light is reflected. The work at first can be seen as a minimalist piece but it has a deeper meaning focused on the central perspective and its questioning.

The questioning about the space that we produce but in which we are also produced brings a lot of responsibility. The title of the work Sun has no money is about the year of its creation 2007 after the financial crisis of 2007, where everything was focus on money but it losing sight of important matters as the climate and energy crisis.

Eliasson as a Nordic artist is more sensible to nature and climate changes.

In 2012 Eliasson and the engineer Frederik Ottesen founded the society Little Sun.

Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun

This global project provides clean, affordable energy to communities without access to electricity, encourages sustainable development through sales of Little Sun solar-powered lamps and chargers, and raises global awareness of the need for equal access to energy and light.

His most important work connected with the sun was the installation of an artificial sun The weather project 2003 inside the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London.

Olafur Eliasson, The weather project 2003, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

Aluminium frames lined with mirror foil were suspended from the ceiling to create a giant mirror that visually doubled the volume of the hall, along with the semi-circular screen mounted on the far wall, its long edge abutting the mirror ceiling and 200 mono-frequency lights that allowed to see just the yellow and black colours.

These lamps change the view of the space around with the only two colours visible giving a unique community experience, giving the illusion to be close to the sun and making thing about the mysteries of the universe.

Olafur Eliasson, The New York City Waterfalls in 2008

Another collective experience are the large waterfalls that Eliasson built in New York, The New York City Waterfalls in 2008. The four waterfalls were place in the historical port of New York, that was historically the first entrance in the Unite State of America. The consideration of the historical and architectural space allows him to join the beauty of the nature with the urban landscape giving to the people the possibility to value this relation.

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993

The water is also the element in the work Beauty 1993. The work is located in a darkened space with nozzles arranged in a row spray a curtain of fine mist from the ceiling into the bright beam of a spotlight creating a rainbow that appear or disappears as the viewer approaches it or moves away.

Eliasson also uses glacial ice in his works to recall action of the climate emergency. He knew it from his experience in Iceland and Greenland where warmer climates have caused the Greenland ice sheet to lose around 200–300 billion tonnes of glacial ice each year.

Ice Watch, which was staged in front of Tate Modern in 2018, is an installation of ice blocks fished from the water off the coast of Greenland. It offered a direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting Arctic ice.

Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch, 2018, staged in front of Tate Modern, London

These Ice sculptures provide a direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting artic ice and feel the fresh air coming from it. The Ice Watch experience made tangible a physical experience to visitors that would be difficult to imagine.

Eliasson transforms art in environmentalism, catching the power of nature and showing her beauty in the light, fog and water. Eliasson makes us think with his works about the beauty of the planet that we are ruining by leaving it to melt, destroy and crush.

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