Who is Olafur Eliasson?

On Thursday, May 7th, Unfiltered San Antonio’s co-founders Casie Lomeli and Deliasofia Zacarias came together (virtually) for another episode of the Stay Home Art Club Instagram Live series. In this episode, we discussed the Netflix docu-series Abstract: The Art of Design’s first episode of season two featuring Olafur Eliasson. I won’t reiterate our lively conversation but will highlight some takeaways of what we learned. 

Who is Olafur Eliasson?

Olafur Eliasson is a Danish–Icelandic artist known for sculptures and large-scale installation art employing elemental materials such as light, water, and temperature to enhance the viewer’s experience. Born in 1967, Eliasson went on to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and established the Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, a laboratory for spatial research, in 1995. As an expert in immersive and experiential design, Eliasson strikes to make the concerns of art relevant to society. He uses sculpture, painting, photography, film, and installation to engage in topics of architecture, civic space, arts education, policy-making, and climate change. 

The New York City Waterfalls, 2008; Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 2008; Photo: Julienne Schaer / Courtesy Public Art Fund / via Artist

“Do you trust your own capacity and own eyes to engage with it…?”

The episode started off with Eliasson staring directly into the camera—to the viewer—and going through an activity based on light and perception. His interest in perception, movement, and experience drives his artistic approach. In this episode, Eliasson discusses various projects that demonstrate how he creates spaces and installations dependent on the spectator. Eliasson always manages to bring the purpose of each installation back to the viewers. When explaining his 2008 New York City Waterfalls, Eliasson goes on to say, “once you know the size of the waterfall, you know the size of your body. It’s not so much about the landscape and nature; it is about us.” 

Reality projector, 2018
Marciano Art Foundation
Photo: Joshua White / via Artist

Ten years later, Eliasson continued to trust the viewer as he created the Reality Project, a site-specific installation created for the Marciano Art Foundation’s expansive first-floor Theater Gallery. In this immersive installation, Eliasson hands over the responsibility to experience art to the participant. He believes that the viewer of a work of art is smart enough to co-produce the narrative. Whether you’re an art novice or expert, you only need yourself to experience and interpret Olafur Eliasson’s experiential installations. 

“Turning thinking into doing. Turn art into advocacy programs.”

Aside from seeing the beauty in process and technique, art also serves as a medium to engage in much-needed dialogue on specific issue areas. In the episode, Olafur Eliasson explains that each project and decision is driven by the why not the how. In his 2014 Ice Watch installation, he places free-floating icebergs that have melted off from the Greenland ice sheet on the City Hall Square in Copenhagen. He intended the installation to make the imminent climate changes we are facing tangible. 

Ice Watch, 2014; City Hall Square, Copenhagen 2014; Photo: Anders Sune Berg / via Artist

However, he doesn’t just initiate conversations. He turns them into action. In collaboration with engineer Frederik Ottesen, Eliasson created Little Sun, solar lamps for people without electricity in Ethiopia. With each solar lamp sold online and in partner stores around the world, someone living off-the-grid receives one at a much lower, locally affordable price. To date, over one million lamps have been distributed worldwide. 

And He Even Has a Cookbook

As Casie and I were discussing the major takeaways from the episode and our newfound fascination with the artist, a fellow viewer kindly mentioned that he even has a cookbook! Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen is a cookbook with over 100 vegetarian recipes for the home cook from the world-renowned artist’s studio kitchen. “These recipes have served as nourishment and source of creative inspiration and communal discussion every day for his staff, artists, and guest collaborators, including René Redzepi and Alice Waters.” I have already added this cookbook to my Amazon shopping cart.  

Throughout the various projects and art installations, Olafur Eliasson has collaborated with architects, scientists, engineers, and chefs, among others. He goes to show the intersection between art and other disciplines go beyond thought-provoking installations, but have the capacity to positively impact those around. It is the relationship between these disciplines that push boundaries and imagination. If you haven’t seen the Netflix docu-series Abstract: The Art of Design’s first episode of season two featuring Olafur Eliasson, we definitely recommend adding it to your watchlist.

Author: Deliasofia Zacarias

Deliasofia Zacarias is one of the Unfiltered San Antonio co-founders. Double-majored in business and studio art, Zacarias is interested in art politics, food, and a whole lot of Netflix. She is currently LACMA's Emerging Art Professional Fellow in Los Angeles, CA.

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