Art, Climate & Sustainability – Q&A with Olafur Eliasson

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Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist known for sculptures and large-scale installation art that employ elemental materials such as light, water, and fog to enhance the viewer’s experience. In 2012, he co-founded Little Sun, a social business that aims to provide clean, solar-powered light to as many people in the world as possible, with a particular focus on off-grid communities.

Source: Tomas Gislason/Little Sun

Photo: Tomas Gislason © 2012 Little Sun

Climate issues seem to be a recurring theme in your art, why is this?

Nature and culture have always been intertwined in my work. This means that I’m particularly interested in the consequences of our actions. It’s a question of empowerment – whether we feel our actions have any consequences, or whether we feel disconnected and therefore less motivated to see ourselves as part of the world.

And these types of questions are related to how we think about our impact on climate change. Generally speaking, because so much is communicated in terms of science, energy issues often become difficult to understand or to make tangible. It’s difficult to feel them emotionally. So the experience of feeling interdependent with the world is something that I’ve been focused on exploring and catalysing through my work.

How can art help people live a more sustainable life?

It’s a question of application – how do you actually change your habits? We tend to act in ways that keep us in environments of safety, comfort and predictability. We have to find ways to change that, and I think art and culture can play a role in this.

Questioning what you take for granted in your comfort zone is not easy. This is where art comes into play. Essentially art is all about introducing a self-critique and, when it is successful, helping people to reconsider their habits. It can inspire them to change their principles.

I’ve made art that has directly addressed climate in a more action-oriented manner. Most recently, I did a project called Ice Watch in Denmark. This involved moving eight large containers of inland ice from Greenland to the town hall square in Copenhagen during the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and COP20. Together with my studio team, I had to evaluate whether the carbon footprint of shipping these containers could justify moving them to Copenhagen. When we compared the carbon footprint to the fact I could create a physical impact with several hundreds of thousands of people seeing these ice blocks – thanks also to a press launch supported by the IPCC – we decided that the results justified the price. In the end, it was a big success, and part of this success was being honest about the carbon footprint when you ship these containers. It’s about being accountable and transparent.

Source: Olafur Eliasson/Ice Watch

Ice Watch at the town hall in Copenhagen. Source: Olafur Eliasson/Ice Watch

What was the inspiration behind Little Sun?

One of the things that drove the project was the challenge of taking something that was difficult to understand, such as solar energy, which is very technical, and make it something palpable. When you charge your Little Sun, you also get the feeling you are charging yourself. We wanted to make the relationship between the power you hold in your hand and the power you feel inside.

Little Sun is an empowering tool. It gives you power, not just the pragmatic power of having light at night, but also a feeling of independence and being in charge of yourself. This is very important, because if we want to create stakeholders and people who are motivated to push for change, we need to empower them.

We need to give them a feeling that they can make a difference.

Little Sun has been around for several years now, what’s been the greatest achievement so far?

I’m very excited that people react so emotionally to Little Sun. This is one of the greatest successes for me. People look at it and they smile. We now have distribution in twelve countries in Africa, and we are adding two more countries next month. We work with both the private sector as well as NGOs and the public sector. But it’s not always easy: in some countries, we have had a lot of success, and we distribute large quantities, but in other countries, we face constant red tape and bureaucracy.

What excites me most is that we’re working in a field where the quality of solar panels is going up and the cost is coming down, even to a point where they can compete with oil. This is quiet amazing. The battery technology is becoming more sustainable and efficient. And even LEDs are becoming more cost effective as well. We are in a situation where there is a lot of potential. I’d expect in a few years that the price landscape of all these elements will have become comparable with if not better than other types of clean energy.

And we’re not the only ones feeling optimistic. The people who contact us are very confident of the future of solar power, too.

Source: Little Sun

Photo: Imagine Burundi © 2014 Little Sun

The Little Sun project has distributed over 200,000 Little Sun lamps worldwide. To strengthen off-grid communities from the inside out, the organisation behind the project is training young local entrepreneurs to become Little Sun sales agents and powering their small businesses with an initial seed capital of lamps. Every Little Sun purchased helps deliver another one to off-grid areas across Africa. This year, Little Sun partnered with the VELUX group, inviting design students from around the world to bring sustainable light to off-grid areas in Africa by designing a Little Sun special edition solar lamp. The winner will be announced in May.

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