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Olafur Eliasson and climate change

How contemporary art can help raise awareness

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Published: 24 Apr 2020
Olafur Eliasson is fifty-three years old and one of the most famous artists in the world. Vogue called him an artivist, because for about twenty years his art has focused on the issue of climate change. Netflix recently dedicated the first episode of the second season of its docu-series Abstract (Olafur Eliasson: The Art of Design) to his work. This series focuses on the great innovators of art and contemporary design and the people who are changing the rules of the game with imagination and creativity.
 
Olafur Eliasson and climate change

Olafur Eliasson in Olafur Eliasson: The Art of Design

Born in 1967, Olafur Eliasson grew up in Iceland and Denmark and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Since 1995 he has lived in Berlin, where he founded the Studio Olafur Eliasson, which now has a creative team of 75. His art ranges from sculpture to painting, and from photography to installations. The constant element that characterises his work is an investigation of the relationship between human perception and the world, and how thought can turn into action. Often his creations break down the boundaries of museums and erupt into the outside world through works of architecture and large-scale projects that give life to immersive experiences. For about twenty years he has explored the relationship between human beings and nature by establishing a connection between his creations and the surrounding environment and by focusing attention on climate change. As he says at the end of his episode in Abstract, “if we want to change something about the climate, it has to be explicit, it has to be physical. And that is the culture, isn’t it? Culture is for the most part, physical. They are the things that are out there in the world.”
 
Olafur Eliasson and climate change

A shot of The Weather 2003

Eliasson’s The Weather project, staged at the Tate Modern in 2003, was his first step towards a new awareness of climate.

It is one of the most famous site-specific installations and it covers a huge space in which the artist made air, emptiness and the atmosphere visible through an artificial fog. At the end of the Turbine Hall, he set up a rear-lit hemisphere that diffused a warm light and he covered the ceiling with mirrors to multiply the space and turn the hemisphere into a sun. The effect this obtained was that of a vast indoor sunset as a monochrome yellow light flooded the environment, creating a sensation of entering an otherworldly space and walking beneath an artificial sky. This contemplative and intriguing space was interpreted in many different ways. For some viewers it was a spiritual place where they could come into contact with their own interior dimension, while others felt as if they were inside a post-apocalyptic scenario with an ominous, funereal atmosphere full of negative feelings. Light played a huge role in The Weather as the artificial sunlight was what gave the air its “material” texture and helped create the project’s intense dusky atmosphere that was incredibly realistic and paroxysmal at the same time.

At the heart of Eliasson’s art there is always a desire to investigate different human perceptions of the outside world. At the start of the Abstract episode that explores his art, Eliasson looks into the camera and speaks directly to the viewer, thereby breaking the fourth wall (just like Frank Underwood did a few years before in House of Cards). The Danish artist asks us, the viewer, to conduct an experiment that involves turning off all the lights wherever we are until all that is left on is our screen. He then asks us to imagine the screen as a lamp and to focus on the surrounding space and how we as viewers exist in that space. He then covers the camera with a yellow panel for a few seconds. Then he changes it for a violet panel and asks us to note how our perception changes now that the room is bathed in a violet light. The last panel is blue. Each colour changes our perceptions and our emotions and feelings. As he says: “every colour influences us in a different way. This is what art is: you are the co- author along with me. You are the lead character. What you see depends on you”, he concludes. In this shared creative process, light is fundamental.
 
“every colour influences us in a different way. This is what art is: you are the co-author along with me. You are the lead character. What you see dependson you”
Eliasson‘s artistic vision is summarised in Earth Perspective, the project he recently launched for Earth Day 2020 on his Instagram account. For this initiative the artist has posted nine orange and pink coloured images of the Earth with a dot in the middle. Each image has a different location at the centre, that is currently threatened by climate change, like the Great Barrier Reef. His followers are invited to stare at the dot for ten seconds and then shift their focus to a blank surface where an afterimage will appear in different colours. For Eliasson this artwork is something that allows the artist and viewer to interact in order to create a new and personalised vision of the world.

Ice Watch

Eliasson’s 2014 project Ice Watch recounts climate change in a way that is even more explicit. It is a perfect example of the artist’s transformative idea and his desire to turn thought into action. To raise awareness of the way glaciers are melting, Eliasson took twelve huge blocks of ice from the sea in Greenland, and placed them in a circle in the middle of City Hall Square in Copenhagen. This meant that people could go right up to the ice, touch it, feel it and experience it melting in person. The work is therefore very simple, but it conceals a highly incisive emotional charge, as even if we know that the ice sheets are disappearing, through Ice Watch we experience this phenomenon first hand, as if we were seeing it for the first time. Naturally, Ice Watch will disappear, just as the ice sheets are disappearing.

Olafur Eliasson talks about In Real Life

In 2019 the Tate Modern hosted another exhibition by the artist entitled In Real Life. This show, that ended in January, featured thirty years of Eliasson’s career recounted through thirty different works organised not chronologically but by similarity of theme. There is no established order to the exhibition, so each visitor can follow their own preferences and create their own experience. All the elements that are dear to the artist are displayed in a series of rooms, like climate change protest that is always present and poignant, a focus on visual perception and a clear love for the intrinsic geometry of nature. This multi-sensory experience has recently moved from London to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

In the near future, Eliasson will also open an installation in Val Senales, in the South Tyrol. This will use the fact that the Giogo Alto or Hochjochferner) glacier is melting as an eloquent example of global warming. The opening is scheduled, Coronavirus permitting, for the 20th June 2020, the same day as the Summer Solstice.

Eliasson’s works recount our world by helping to raise awareness of the most important and crucial issues for both our present and future (another extremely famous project of his is Little Sun, that takes low cost lighting to areas of Africa that have no electricity). At the same time, they never lose sight of a fundamental aspect of art that is to stimulate the chords of our sensory perception. Eliasson’s installations truly involve both body and mind. They also move us and make us think by offering an interpretation of the world’s beauty and fragility. Using the words of the artist, “it is important to speak about climate in a language that is not always tragic. It is extremely important to design things that have a positive story.”