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Environmental artist Olafur Eliasson talks about his work and climate change

By Paul Laster

Celebrated for atmospheric installations like his 2003 artificial “sun” at London’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall (not to mention mechanical waterfalls for New York Harbor in 2008), Olafur Eliasson mixes aesthetics, science and architecture to achieve results that are, in a word, magical. Born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, Eliasson grew up with a profound love of nature. Recently, the artist, who lives in Berlin and is opening a new show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea, discussed his stance on climate change and the improvisational approach he takes to his work. 

Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

You’re best known for ephemeral works that employ the effects of light, water and space. Why go in that direction, instead of permanent objects?
I’ve always been more interested in engaging viewers in the whole experience of art than in just making something to look at. My way of using light, for example, is based on the fact that it draws the attention of your eyes. With my work, I’m not just trying to make you see a particular thing but also to contemplate the very act of seeing itself.

But to create such evanescent work, you employ something like 90 people in your studio, including architects and researchers. How do you manage such a large crew?
To start, I brief everyone on why we’re involved in a certain project instead of immediately trying to tackle it. Once that’s established, we improvise and experiment. There’s maybe a sketch and a model, and we play around with it. But the most important thing is that instead of translating an idea into action, we ask ourselves why we’re translating this idea into action.

Olafur Eliasson, Solar Compression wall (WT), 2017
Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

Does your work have a political point to make about the environment?
It’s not like you can have or not have a political agenda, because the environment is such an intrinsic part of our lives. No matter what we do in relation to it, there will always be consequences. I’m interested in making those consequences tangible because, for most people, they’re very abstract.

Take my Little Sun project, which was about solar energy and the question How do I touch that energy and how am I touched by it? It took an emotional approach to what energy is because I wanted to turn our preconceptions about the climate into an understanding of how we relate to it.

There’s still a political dimension to climate change. How do you feel about that?
It seems so absurd and strange to see how politicians engage with the world. I see myself as a participant in a cultural dialogue, which can sometimes be local or global. In that sense, I think culture constitutes a reality that is a much more resilient, forthcoming and hospitable than politics.

Olafur Eliasson’s work is on view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, through Apr 22.


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