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The Sun King

Olafur Eliasson is a climate artist working at the intersection of art, science and nature.

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is doodling with a Sharpie on a dinner plate; he is creating a little impromptu memento for some lucky guests at the unveiling of the new Château Mouton Rothschild label, which he designed, here at the Palace of Versailles in France.

He joked, earlier on, that he accepted the job of designing the 2019 label on the basis that he would receive some free wine from the esteemed first-growth château. But it is genuinely a huge honour, he adds, and Eliasson, with his gold-and-navy, science-inspired design, joins the most celebrated artists of all time who have created bottle labels, such as Dalí, César, Miró, Chagall, Picasso and Warhol.

For Eliasson, like his predecessors, is truly an artist of his time. Working at the intersection of art, science and nature, he was one of the original climate-change artists. He created the unforgettable Weather Project installed in the Turbine Room of the Tate Modern in 2003, using air humidifiers to create a fine mist and hundreds of monochromatic lamps emitting a mass of orange light, symbolising the sun. Then there was the Ice Watch series, for which Eliasson transported 12 enormous, melting glaciers from Greenland to Place du Panthéon in Paris. The installation was timed to coincide with a UN climate-change conference in Paris, and he repeated it two years later in the City of London. As the blocks of ice melted, people came out to lay flowers at their base.

Part of Olafur Eliasson's Glacier Melt Series

His ultimate aim, he says, is to use climate-change art in a practical way to change people’s behaviour, our narrative and perhaps even our policy.  

“I continue to be interested in finding ways to make the climate crisis tangible,” he tells me. “I’m aware how every action is so valuable in this fight, so I’ve taken many measures to assess my own practice and use my influence to encourage change at a systemic, institutional level, by, for example, negotiating for carbon-consciousness in making exhibitions.” (For example, the blocks of ice were shipped back on a shrimping boat that had some spare room.)

Eliasson adds that this awareness can lead to a whole array of changes that trickle into policy and structural changes. “I was delighted when Tate Modern, following conversations we had in the context of my In Real Life exhibition, publicly declared a climate emergency, citing my exhibition as one of the catalysts.”

Born in 1967, Eliasson studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and started working as an artist in the 1990s. Now based in Berlin, with work in the world’s top museums, he famously represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 2003 with The Blind Pavilion, with mirrors and camera obscuras to blur outside and inside worlds. In 2016, Eliasson created a series of works for a solo exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, deploying mirrors and light, fog and water to amplify feelings of impermanence and transformation.

Little Sun Project, co-founded with engineer Frederik Ottesen

As an artist, he strives to create work that has a profound impact; art that is not “just a means to escape the world and its problems”, as he puts it. A case in point is his Little Sun Project, co-founded with engineer Frederik Ottesen, distributing solar-powered lamps to the poorest parts of the world such as Ethiopia. The project came about through a conversation about the effects that quality of light has on so many other aspects of a person’s life — from education for children to job productivity for adults, he explains. “It was a great pleasure to bring the technical knowhow of Ottesen, who is a solar engineer, with my own sensibility for creating something aesthetically pleasing for a broad public,” says Eliasson. Since 2012, Little Sun has been replacing kerosene burning lamps with clean renewable energy in rural, off-grid communities around the world, and has thus far distributed 1.2 million lamps. 

Eliasson is a deeply collaborative artist, an ethos that led him to co-found Future Assembly in 2021, where he and Sebastian Behmann, co-founders of his platform Studio Other Spaces, collaborated with six other designers and over 50 architectural practices to create a joint contribution to the 2021 Venice Biennale. Future Assembly was created in response to Biennale curator Hashim Sarkis’s invitation to imagine a multilateral design, inspired by the UN, for his exhibition in the Central Pavilion. 

Olafur Eliasson and Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild (c) Michael Waldrep Studio/Olafur Eliasson

“While the UN was the paradigm for a multilateral assembly of the 20th century, today we feel an equally radical response is needed to address the urgent, human-propelled climate crisis, one that is structured around reciprocity, collaboration, and coexistence — not only among humans, but together with the more-than-human world. Future Assembly was a mind experiment to imagine a world in which a tree would be given the same level of importance as a human. And, of course, a tree is in fact quite exceptional, considering that it does not make waste material and breathes in CO2 and breathes out oxygen. In this case, perhaps we might escape from our single-species perspective on the world and see ‘our true status as upright mammalian weeds’, as biologist Lynn Margulis put it,” says Eliasson.

Nowadays, in locked-down times, he considers social media an increasingly important tool in conveying his message. “I recently held an online lecture at a university in Punjab and it struck me that the students, many of whom had never travelled abroad, were still familiar with elements in my work from social media. I have also become acquainted with a group of artists in south India who have been incredibly inspiring to me in return and we would not have been able to connect had they not seen my works and ways of thinking through social media. In that sense, I am quite grateful for the reach of social media.” 

Now, at the top of his game, Eliasson remains consumed by the urge to keep making art, constantly. “Art and artists, I believe, are never outside society and we cannot escape social responsibility.”

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Learning Issue, Winter 2021. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.