by Nadja Sayej
“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.
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?
Eliasson: Certainly not.
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?
Eliasson: We have had governmental contact with different countries. There are two types of responses, I’m generalizing: the typical response is they want it for free as aid. This is an older generation of government officials. “You’re rich, we’re poor.” Then there, is generalizing again, the younger governmental worker who says: “We need to build a sustainable infrastructure with small businesses which becomes bigger businesses and then it pushes social progress and we don’t want it for free – we want to buy it. But we need to buy it and leave the profit in the country.” This is what we have chosen. I think generally there is more of a need of businesses as a social vehicle, less of a governmental worker who says give us the lights for free. If I say I bring 10,000 lamps, and sell them, the one shop locally there will close. I’m not going to come in and close that business. Essentially we are talking to the government; we need the place to make the space for it, but to get import tax so we don’t have to pay import tax, because on electronics it can be quite high. We are leaving the profit in the country to bring it in as a progressive social vehicle. We are currently talking to the government in Zimbabwe and Kenya and we don’t know yet. The stories on our blog show that tiny things make huge differences.
Sayej: How many lights are you going to bring?
Eliasson: 4,000 in Zimbabwe marketplaces in September and 4,000 in Kenya. That’s not really large compared to the people who live off the grid but these are the lamps which are paid for and ready to be resold. It’s not aid. We’re not dropping lamps from some western airplane flying over something, these are lamps inside of infrastructures people are using the businesses to use financial infrastructure inside of them. This is healthy progress.
Sayej: The lights only last 3 years, then what?
Eliasson: You’re right. They have 1,000 recharges, if you charge it once a day then it gives you 3 years. But if you charge it one a week, it charges longer. We used the 3 years as a part of benchmark. It saves you a hell of a lot of money compared to kerosene, for a lot of people they save a lot of money. 90% of the money you get back. That is quite a bit of money to put a child in a relatively good school. We will for sure be here for 3 years; I’m going to subsidize it for 3 years. The whole model is made so it will pay for itself. We will be there in 10 years and it will grow. It is not just a small project – we are totally ambitious. We have to expand otherwise we won’t have to be. There are 1.6 billion people who don’t have light.
Sayej: What do you think we need to do to overcome the global energy challenge?
Eliasson: In terms of introducing something by making it explicit. When you hold the Little Sun, you suddenly realize the sun is shining on the object and you’re collecting energy in your hand. In a lot of places, people know about solar energy but they don’t have any physical relationship. We all own the sun together. It introduces alternative energy on a basic level – even to someone really educated. This is one of the challenges we work with, one challenge is to make the land out but the next challenge is to make people believe it is possible.
When you drive an electrical car – and I do – but when you know you’re polluting less, it gives you a different feeling.
Sayej: What kind of car you drive?
Eliasson: A Hummer! It’s the same color as the UN cars, its fibreglass—a white hummer, I have kept it up.
Sayej: It’s in Iceland, isn’t it?
Eliasson: It is.
Sayej: I knew it!
Eliasson: I can drive into an ocean; it can take a couple of meters of water quite well. You’re writing all this down, aren’t you?
Sayej: Actually I have my hands over my mouth. I’m in shock.
Eliasson: In Berlin, I am very political correct. I drive a diesel BMW and a Prius.
Sayej: It’s like a taxi.
Eliasson: It is.
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?
Eliasson: We have two.
Sayej: Doesn’t it make you feel like the president?
Eliasson: They don’t just cook for me, I’m not that glamorous. They cook for everyone. We have committed food warriors. Explicit and highly experienced.
Sayej: Do you use the Little Sun lights in your day to day?
Eliasson: I was hiking in Iceland last week and we did use it when we were reading Harry Potter. My son is 8.
Sayej: Have fun with the Berlin art hipsters in Ethiopia and I hope that it’s heavily documented.
Eliasson: I hope so too. WM
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Nadja Sayej is a Canadian journalist, broadcaster and internationally-acclaimed art critic who is best known as the leader of the new art criticism with her web-TV show, ArtStars*. In her balls-out, snappy Gonzo approach to demystify the inner workings of success in the art world, she has interviewed top-notch art world celebrities like Gilbert & George, John Waters, Peaches, Bruce LaBruce, Robert Crumb, among others, with unmatchable wit and style. Dubbed the “Perez Hilton of Neukölln,” “Borat of the Berlin art scene,” Nadja is represented by 1A Management in Berlin. She reports on visual art and architecture for The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @ArtStars.