‘From Thinking to Doing’: Olafur Eliasson on Art and Action

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is known for large sculptures, paintings, photography, and films that frequently tackle the urgent problems of environmental sustainability and climate change and aim to inspire viewers to act rather than simply observe.

Eliasson describes Waterfalls, which was installed around New York City in 2008. 
 (Credit: Elza Bouhassira)

Eliasson, speaking Sept. 26 at Columbia University, described several of the projects he has created over the course of his career.  In his 1993 exhibit “Beauty,” he created a curtain of mist using a punctured hose that shifted depending on the viewer’s perspective. From some angles, a rainbow appeared, and the water seemed to flow more or less intensely depending on distance. In “Waterfalls,” four 30- to 40-meter-tall waterfalls poured down from temporarily installed scaffolding and into New York’s East River. In the “Little Sun” initiative, aimed at promoting solar energy in areas without access to electricity, bright yellow, sun-shaped, and portable solar lamps were designed. Over 800,000 lamps have been distributed since its launch in 2012. 

Icewatch,” a public installation which has had three iterations, was first displayed in Copenhagen in 2014 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  published its Fifth Assessment Report. The second installation occurred in Paris during the UN’s 2015 Paris climate change negotiations. The most recent iteration was in 2018 in London outside of the Tate Modern and in front of Bloomberg’s European headquarters.

Eliasson describes “Icewatch,” which was first displayed in Copenhagen in 2014. 
 (Credit: Elza Bouhassira)

Eliasson said the strength of “Icewatch” comes from its physical presence. Visitors to it could see tiny air bubbles in the ice, which would pop as the ice melted. Projects like “Icewatch” bring sound, smell, and touch to a viewer and, thus, can prompt people to shift from thinking to doing, Eliasson argued.

In his 2014 exhibition “Riverbed,” Eliasson filled a wing of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark with rocks and sediment, which was meant to convey how a dry riverbed looks after a glacier has melted. Eliasson described the experience of hiking in such a riverbed, saying that hikers can feel “the void of water that has been” and “the presence of the absence of water” when trekking through an empty riverbed.  

Yet another project Eliasson discussed was the photo series “Glacier Series,” which he created in 1999. He photographed glaciers from the sky to give viewers a sense of their immense size. Eliasson is updating the series by including photographs of the same glaciers, but shot in 2018, almost twenty years after the originals, in order to show the changes that have taken place. 

Eliasson displays images of a glacier seen in 1999 (left) and in 2018 (right).
(Credit: Elza Bouhassira)

Nature, according to Eliasson, is a cultural construct. The idea that nature and culture are inseparable is widely accepted, he said. But, he recalled, not too long ago, nature was seen as separate from culture.

Eliasson’s lecture was part of the Year of Water, an academic year of events at Columbia spearheaded by the School of the Arts aimed at bringing attention to the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental issues surrounding water. 

When asked about the frustration and anger that feed new movements like the global, youth-led climate strikes, Eliasson said that the kind of rage they are channeling is powerful, but that he believes in the importance of optimism. “To actually feel empowered, to become a change agent, a change stakeholder, we have to have an element of positivity,” he said. “I just do think that hope has a greater impact if there is this notion that tomorrow is going to be better.”

Read more on GlacierHub:

Roundup: Ice911, Glacier Tourism in New Zealand, and Ice Stupas

Pakistan Could Be Left High and Dry Even If Nations Achieve Paris Climate Targets

Antarctic Fungi Provides a Window into the Past and Future

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