December 2012: In Conversation with Olafur Eliasson
“Little Sun responds to the situation we face today, where natural resources no longer abound. Energy shortage and unequal energy distribution make it necessary to reconsider how our life-sustaining systems function. I see Little Sun as a wedge that opens up this urgent discussion from the perspective of art.” – Olafur Eliasson, artist
Here we are with our first world problems, right? Meanwhile, Berlin-based Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is lighting up Ethiopia at night.
The Little Sun project, which he opened at the Tate Modern in London on July 28, showcases the ambitious solar-powered lamps project he created with engineer Frederik Ottesen. Little yellow, solar-powered lights which take five hours to charge in the sun can help farmers at night, children read before bedtime and travelers in the dark. The point? To help get solar light for the 1.6 billion people who live without access to electricity—while taking along his art class from the Universität der Künste Berlin for eight weeks this fall. Eliasson gets all Edison for this interview, where he talks about liaising with government officials and why he is politically correct—even if he does drive a hummer, has two chefs in his Berlin studio with 55 employees and thinks that Africa is covered in crappy Chinese infrastructure.
Nadja Sayej: What is your history with Ethiopia?
Olafur Eliasson: I started going there a while ago; I adopted two children from there. It’s a country of different resources. There is something to be said about the democracy they claim to have. I’ve thought about opening an office for architecture, no confirmation but it’s one of my dreams. The building there, for the most part, is made from pre-drawn Chinese junk.
Sayej: Pre-drawn Chinese junk?
Eliasson: They tear down a lot of signature city houses with a total lack of criticality, Chinese prefab buildings, this happens everywhere in Africa. Super great people can’t get jobs there because of this prefab Chinese junk! We need architects to make great buildings. These are one of my things.
Sayej: How did Little Sun come about?
Eliasson: With art, there is a lot of thinking. I often have [my UdK] student discussions about a potential work of art. You have to develop a sophisticated relationship and actually do it. This is one of the core places of where Little Sun grew from… I realized I can do it. And this is, in a sense, quite banal but true nevertheless.
Sayej: A work of art that is functional in life--isn’t that design?
Eliasson: I get this question a lot and it’s a fair question. I look at it as a work of art and I work with it the same way I work with all my works of art. It’s not just a work of art and a functional work somewhere else. It’s very much about the confidence you have in something that is more than just a functional object. It is very clear that design, spirituality and culture and values that are not easily made into a commodity.
Sayej: What was your biggest mistake?
Eliasson: When I took the lamp to Africa two years ago, my partner and I were testing it. It’s a cool story: we tested it, it was more functional, not a very pretty, a quite daunting looking, light. We made one big mistake, we said: “Look, we have done this really functional thing for poor people.” People said: “A) I think it’s ugly and b) I am not poor.” We realized how wrong we were to come into a country like this and say: “you are poor.” It was offensive and poor of us. We stopped. This is a land for rich people and powerful people. It’s a power station. If you have the lamp in your hand its powerful, it’s to show my neighbor if it’s resourceful. And it helps if it’s beautiful.
Sayej: You’re going to Ethiopia in the fall with your art class from UdK?
Eliasson: I am going to Ethiopia with my students for eight weeks. The students are part of an education system and Little Sun is a project, it’s different. Every year, we take a longer trip to South America, North America, to Iceland, this year we are preparing to go to Africa. Not just to experience different cultures, but to get a better understanding of being in Berlin. Sometimes you have to go away to understand Berlin, a bit. We are opening up a café within the frame of the art school, as a project. Coffee comes out of Ethiopia. We haven’t made many rules.
Sayej: It’s not going to be a Starbucks, is it?
Sayej: I see on your Little Sun blog that you’ve gotten a lot of very touching testimonials from people in Africa. You said in a promotional Tate video: “It’s about having rights to light.” How has the government responded?
Sayej: How many lights are you going to bring?
Sayej: The lights only last 3 years, then what?
Sayej: What do you think we need to do to overcome the global energy challenge?
Sayej: What kind of car you drive?
Sayej: It’s in Iceland, isn’t it?
Sayej: I knew it!
Sayej: Actually I have my hands over my mouth. I’m in shock.
Sayej: It’s like a taxi.
Sayej: All the taxis in Berlin are BMWs anyway.
Sayej: I have an optional question for you. Is it true you have a personal chef in your studio?
Sayej: Doesn’t it make you feel like the president?
Sayej: Do you use the Little Sun lights in your day to day?
Sayej: Have fun with the Berlin art hipsters in Ethiopia and I hope that it’s heavily documented.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief