He is an atypical artist, and that makes him more interesting in a world where everyone looks too much like everyone. Danish, of Icelandic parents, the name of Olafur Eliasson (Copenhagen, 1967) rose to fame when in 2003 he exhibited in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern “The Weather Project”, a spectacular installation in which he created an artificial sun that it illuminated this temple of contemporaneity, where a few years earlier the Spanish Juan Muñoz triumphed. Actually, they both have something in common: they are two great illusionists. Eliasson became the new “golden calf” worshiped by curators, critics, museum directors, fairs and biennials, collectors … but also the public, who has a great time visiting its facilities, very photogenic and grass self. Eliasson is a star, one of the most sought-after artists in the world, no matter how much he wants to keep art and business at a distance.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao dedicates a great exhibition, sponsored by Iberdrola, which was seen before, with some variations, at the Tate Modern in London. A day before his inauguration, we chatted with him a group of journalists. The appointment: at two in the afternoon, that for a Nordic it must be a good time to have a complex, deep and intense conversation, but not so much for a Spanish in full digestion. And that the artist was not fasting either. Minutes before, he gave a good account of a ham sandwich on the terrace of the Guggenheim. We save ourselves, then, ask him if he is vegan.
Olafur Eliasson’s work is a mixture of art, technique and science. His study in Berlin is more an experimental laboratory, where he investigates geometry, space, light and color, than the usual workshop of an artist. A hundred people work in it: architects, engineers, mathematicians, graphic designers, historians, artisans and even chefs. And it is that, for him, art is not something that is framed, hangs and is contemplated, but something that raises social, political, ecological, aesthetic, ethical issues …, about what is reflected and debated. The exhibition starts with a piece of the Modern Museet in Stockholm: locked in a huge showcase, 450 models and prototypes produced in his studio. They have served to inspire many of their projects. It’s like entering Eliasson’s head, which doesn’t seem to be furnished precisely by Ikea.
Like his study, neither are his materials typical. Just take a walk through the exhibition. His title: “In real life.” It is hard to believe, there are works that seem to come out of a science fiction movie. A futuristic kaleidoscopic tunnel surrounded by glowing spheres, projectors that reflect our multicolored shadows on the wall, abstract shapes that “dance” in a mirror … Play and experiment with the light, as Rembrandt or Caravaggio once did, although theirs , he clarifies, is not a divine light. And he always has the complicity of the spectator, protagonist of all his works. He does not hide the “making of” of his works: he leaves the cables and the rest of the material on the air. It is the case of their machines that create waves.
Do you consider yourself an illusionist? «The illusionist is the one who hides the tricks he performs before the public. I ask the spectators to be co-producers of my works of art ». But, knowing the trick, don’t you lose some of the magic? «The important thing is to experience the magic and see how it is done. If you only see magic, you can trick people into believing in things that are not necessarily true. It’s about how we can approach reality and see what is real. For me, the museum is like a prismatic: we see things that would otherwise be difficult to contemplate. Museums show us a much more realistic view of the world ».
We feel like Alice in Wonderland touring the show. In front of us, a wall of reindeer lichen, which looks like a spongy carpet. It is a living organism, which will be degraded over time. They clarify that it is produced by them. A spotlight invites us to place ourselves under it and become improvised stars. Eliasson created the piece for the bar where he worked as a waiter years ago: the «Krasnapolsky» in Copenhagen.
His works constantly appeal to perception and our senses. We enter its multicolored “atmospheric Atlas”: a room full of fog in which, when we lose our sense of sight, we must pull the rest to orient ourselves. In the Tate Modern the space was even more claustrophobic: a 39-meter foggy corridor. Eliasson “dyes” a museum room yellow: by removing white light, the colors turn yellow, gray and black. Do not expect to be favored in the photos. They will seem fresh out of “The sixth sense.” Poetic and evocative, the rainbow reflected in a curtain of water that you can cross, or its “Big Bang Fountain”: a stream of water becomes hypnotic and beautiful sculptures thanks to the strobe light. Eliasson is able to catch the color palette of Friedrich’s paintings in two oil paintings on canvas.
Active and confessed environmentalist (he is a goodwill ambassador for climate action of the United Nations), he warns of the terrible consequences of climate change in watercolors with melted ice, in a bronze emptying of what was once a block of ice a glacier, already melted, or in its photographs of the melting of a glacier in Iceland, comparing images from 1999 and 2019. In London it came to exhibit large blocks of ice on the outskirts of the Tate Modern. Not here. Outside the Guggenheim, an eleven meter waterfall has been installed. A few years ago the artist already installed four monumental waterfalls on the East River in New York. «I’ve always been very interested in the fragility of the Arctic. It was natural for me to get involved with nature and the environment, ”he warns. «Nature should have the same fundamental rights as human beings. Nobody owns the sky, the oceans … We are all co-owners ». He also has a strong social conscience. At the 2016 Venice Biennale we saw his «Green light», a project that had the patronage of Francesca Thyssen: a lamp learning workshop for refugees and immigrants.
He is very satisfied with the result of the exhibition, compared to that of London: «Here you can have a better, more contemplative experience. It has surprised me. Frank Gehry has a very strong seal, I thought it would be more complicated. It is a pleasure to see that my work is dancing quite well with the work of Frank Gehry ».
Eliasson invites us with his works to explore our own relationship with nature: «I leave many paths open for each one to carry out an interpretive journey». What do you think of a world as narcissistic and vain as the art market, of which it is a part? «Personally, I think art is amazing, incredible. It has something very valuable to offer people. We cannot compare the art world with the art market. Art has to do with culture, not commerce. For Eliasson, «art is always political» and the museum «is a kind of parliament», where we can reflect on «how we can prevent populism, nationalism, patriarchal behaviors, xenophobia … and other contemporary conflicts. When I talk about museums, I also talk about theaters, libraries … They have a very important role ». Europeist convinced, we ask how Brexit has lived: “It is a very sad result. It has been a failure to create a common narrative for the whole of Europe ».
«Little sun» – STUDIO OLAFUR ELIASSON
About seven years ago Olafur Eliasson launched a project on sustainability. The idea I was driving was to take the sun by the hand. But how can we do it? He wondered. Said and done: he created “Little sun”, a lamp that works with solar energy, a small sustainable thermal power plant. «One in seven people in the world does not have access to any type of electrical energy. They use oil or firewood as a primary source of energy. I made this project to present it at an affordable price [en el museo está a la venta a 22 euros, un precio mucho mayor]. An alternative for people without access to energy, but much access to the sun. We have delivered more than one million lamps: two thirds, in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 700,000 tons of C02 have been saved and some 36,000 million hours of sunshine have been used ». The artist is the father of two children adopted in Ethiopia. .