Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is successful by anyone’s standards, both within the art world and without. He is renowned for his seemingly celestial command of elemental materials – light, water, air, temperature – to enhance the viewer’s experience.
Perhaps best known for his spectacular staging of a sunset, The Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern, Olafur’s work has been burned into the collective consciousness.
But the ever-modest Eliasson will be the first to remind you that his pursuits haven’t always run with such well-oiled precision. He comes from humble beginnings – his father a cook and his mother a seamstress, with his family emigrating to Copenhagen from Iceland in search of work. Eliasson spent his youth traveling between the two countries and developing his interests in art. Only gradually did his workshop, Studio Olafur Eliasson, turn into a laboratory for spatial research – one that now employs a team of 90 specialists in the fields of architecture, engineering, design, and craftwork.
When you enter the converted brewery in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, you do not immediately think of an artist studio. The 5000 square meter building with huge windows is more reminiscent of a physics laboratory that’s met a progressive lamp shop. Polyhedra in different sizes sit on shelves and hang from the ceiling, while standing spotlights, colorful glass balls, and technical drawings cover the walls. The employees dot the space at their desks, run in the hallways or play foosball, while Eliasson quietly sits in the conference room of the Little Sun department, casually toying with a solar lamp made of yellow plastic.
It’s here that we spoke with him about his 2012 solar energy company Little Sun, as well as his art, his first cookbook and how his studio’s kitchen doubles as the Human Resources Department.
Studio Olafur Eliasson
Size: 5000 square meters
Number of team members in 2015: 90
Mostly known for: Large-scale conceptual art installations
The Green River Series, 1998
The Weather Project, Tate Modern, 2003
The Blind Pavilion, 50th Venice Biennale, 2003
The New York City Waterfalls, New York Harbor, 2008
What does your regular workday look like?
It is pretty easy going. I come in the morning and have breakfast with my son – for the time being at least because he is on summer break. At some point he gets bored of me and leaves with his friend to ride his scooter. Usually I run after them with a helmet, which again today he didn’t wear. Then I shoot bow and arrow for 20 minutes, waiting for Florian, my studio manager, to interrupt me and tell me to go to the first meeting. I have about five meetings per days, on bad days it’s eight.
What are those meetings about?
Some of them are in fact creative workshops where we sit down and do drawings or I explain what I would like to work on next. I ask two or three people to go and do some research on whatever I have in mind. Maybe the next day they bring back material and I say ‘oh, this one is great, let’s go in this direction.’ Then I make more drawings and they go off maybe for a week to do experiments and so on. Typically the more creative meetings are in the morning because my brain is still fueled then. Meetings with related planning and cost management and exhibition budgets as well as interviews are scheduled later in the day. After five I really cannot do anything creative at all. Then my son comes home and we are going out to eat.
“I never really had a breakthrough.”
Does it sometimes feel like a big responsibility to employ 90 people?
I deliberately kept it at 90. I could easily build up another 90 to it but I feel that that many people or maybe 300 in total would be pushing it too far. I feel very comfortable with 90 employees because it is an easily manageable number. I still know what everybody is doing, I see when people come in and go home and I can kind of intuitively run that number of people. I think once it comes to a 110 it becomes more abstract and I don’t know anymore what everybody is doing and when it comes to 200, it gets mad. Luckily, I have been in this situation for so long that I’ve never been challenged by the fact that all these people need salaries and I knock on wood that this day won’t ever come. But I have been very conservative and slow, and I didn’t hire 90 people over night. We gradually grew. Just like my exposure in general has gradually grown. I never really had a breakthrough.
You wouldn’t say that the Weather Project at the Tate Modern was your breakthrough?
Well, in order to have a show at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall you need to have had a lot of exposure already. At that time I was already a relatively exposed or established artist. My feeling was that suddenly I had more public exposure but that is a very abstract measure of success. I am not a pop musician… I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter, because it wouldn’t be fair to all the amazing people who came to appreciate the work; but had the Tate taken the risk and asked me ten years before, then that would have been a quantum leap. It sounds a little unthankful now which really, I’m not.
What kind of atmosphere do you need in order to be creative?
I need music. At the moment I listen to Jamie xx’s album. We finally got this wireless system here that allows me to play music from my phone. So one thing I need in order to work is the Internet, otherwise we can’t listen to music.
I just got a text from my wife saying the grass around the house in Denmark is too high. That is so my life!
You live in Copenhagen and commute to Berlin…
Yes, because my wife is Danish and she spent ten years with me here and we got kids and decided to bring them up in a Danish school. I commute here and my wife wants to spend more time with the children in Denmark. I used to travel so much and now I travel less so I’m here at the studio the same amount of time as before. I just skipped being in Asia and America that much– I guess that comes with having children. I used to work more on site-specific projects when I was younger but now I have become more of a studio-based artist.
Why did you choose this neighborhood in Prenzlauer Berg for your studio?
Well, when you are looking for a place with 5000 square meters, you really kind of have to take what you can get. This compound here came on the market in 2008, I guess because of the crisis, and left me with a relatively good position to negotiate. I was less affected by the crisis than the real estate market was. I had been looking quite a while for a new place and suddenly it was a golden opportunity. But it’s a little more complex because a lot of people helped to make this possible. For me it was a lot of money and a big risk and to convince everybody during the crisis that this was the right time to buy a big place wasn’t easy.
You are sharing the courtyard with a hostel – do tourist sometimes peek through your windows or knock on your door?
It’s actually a very nice hostel. I haven’t experienced anybody coming over knocking on the door, but there might have been. I guess being an exposed artist still leaves you relatively unknown for the general Berlin tourist.
“I wanted to see if I could also use my creativity outside of the conventional art world.”
Manufacturing and selling solar products seems quite removed from your usual practice as an artist. Does being a businessman come as naturally to you as being an artist?
I did turn my experiences from East Africa into things that I used in my artworks. But making art sometimes puts you in a bubble. The art world – as socially aspirational as it can be – can also be highly utopian and disconnected from reality. I wanted to see if I could also use my creativity outside of the conventional art world. I see Little Sun as an art project. That might say more about the art world than about the real world because for a lot of people it’s just about light and energy. But when I say that it’s about art, it adds an element of non-quantifiable success criteria. People ask ‘what do you mean it’s an art project?’ I tell them, ‘It is also about art, about creativity, about things that we question.’ People then generally respond with, ‘well that’s cool’.
So by declaring Little Sun art, you’ve elevated people’s perception of it?
One of the reasons why the cultural segment in which I work is great is that, despite its elitism, it has a great amount of civic trust. I think culture is in demand because it has what the politicians don’t have: the trust of the people. It has what the finance sector doesn’t have: civic trust. So culture is a very good currency to be trading in. When I say Little Sun is a work of art, it’s also because I know it makes it more valid. Not valuable but valid.
“I try to inspire people and also show that I care a great deal about them. I hope that if I care about them that they occasionally care about me.”
You developed a solar charger but there are already companies with similar products on the market…
There are a few other really amazing companies and we consider them collaborators for the same cause. The truth is, there are so many people who need access to energy that there could be a hundred more companies and we would still not be competing. There are many companies but still so few that we don’t yet meet them out in the field. The field is so big. Even in Ethiopia there are 85 million people without access to energy. I guess in the whole world maybe two million solar products were sold. So we are really only seeing the very beginning of this.
Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund the production?
We have to produce 10,000 pieces in order to get the production price low enough to make the product sellable in Africa. Otherwise it will be incredibly limited and expensive. We want to be mass-market oriented and Kickstarter is the stairway to mass-market heaven. Making the campaign video was a new experience because suddenly you have to be trustworthy in front of a camera, which is almost a contradiction in itself. I had to think about how to make people actually go on Kickstarter and spend their money. I think that is a great challenge.
“In the team, we try to be respectful towards each other. I always say that we should celebrate that we disagree about a lot of things. We should treasure the fact that we are not necessarily here to help each other but we are here to make art.”
How do you tackle challenges like that?
A lot of the studio teams are involved with social media and I have two very brilliant computer programmers. When the Little Sun team came up with the Kickstarter idea, all the people who are knowledgeable within this field and what I call the “nerd crowd” from the studio got together, which led to a really great energy and a lot of exchange. People at Little Sun are very result oriented because they have to be, whereas the people in the studio are used to floating on a cloud and not having to think one reasonable thought for months at a time, after I sell a piece of art. It’s a lovely energy: How can you be irresponsible and responsible at the same time?
Sounds like there’s quite a potential for conflict. How do you keep the good energy?
We try to be respectful towards each other. I always say that we should celebrate that we disagree about a lot of things. We should treasure the fact that we are not necessarily here to help each other but we are here to make art. Sometimes when making art you have to make decisions that are not comfortable. A work of art sometimes means working for things you can’t measure. I try to inspire people and also show that I care a great deal about them. I hope that if I care about them that they occasionally care about me.
The kitchen is my HR department. It is where everybody gets to argue and throw food at each other or hold hands and look into each other’s eyes.
You seem to care a lot about your staff. Four days a week you have lunch with them. Why is that important to you?
With 90 people you are still small enough to not worry about human resources. So the kitchen is my HR department. It is where everybody gets to argue and throw food at each other or hold hands and look into each other’s eyes. It has a communal aspect that mirrors how we respect and treasure organic food, prevent food waste and respect the kitchen culture. It represents the idealism that I hope to nurture in this studio. Of course sometimes we eat beetroot salad four days in a row and there is a handful of people who go across the street to eat pizza so it’s not like we don’t also sometimes struggle with it.
What role does food and cooking play at your studio?
Communal cooking is a big topic. We run our kitchen like an art project. A while ago we did an in-house cookbook just for fun that will now be published by Phaidon. It is so funny, who would have thought that I’d ever do a cookbook? It has a lot of food experiments in it. My sister used to cook at the studio and she was one of the reforming powers. Now she has her own restaurant in Berlin called Dóttir, which is a knockout success. Over the years we have had a number of amazing chefs.
Boom! – the sun is gone and it’s pitch black.
In 2012 you and engineer Frederik Ottesen founded Little Sun, a company that makes solar products. What’s your role in that company?
I am part of the team but the truth is, one of the things that I am good at is to understand when I am not so good at something and then I get someone else to do it. That’s why I have about 90 people at my studio. At Little Sun I am responsible for the design and a few more elements.
What inspired you to start Little Sun?
I have always been interested in light and sun as a subject for my art. When I met the solar engineer Frederik Ottesen, he presented me with the feasibility of taking energy from the sun and holding it in your hand. At that time I had just returned from a trip to Ethiopia, where many people have no access to energy. What struck me the most was the fact that in Sub-Saharan Africa the sun doesn’t set. It just goes out, there’s no twilight zone in which it gradually gets darker. It is as if someone flips a switch and then – boom! – the sun is gone and it’s pitch black. I was very fascinated by that, and at the same time, I realized that the need for access to energy is very substantial. You really only understand it once you have experienced it for yourself.