“Life in the studio is reality in higher definition”

Olafur Eliasson opens the doors to his studio


Along with the publication of the book Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House, the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has symbolically opened the doors of his studio to the public. Often called a master of surreal emotions and a “new-renaissance man”, Eliasson is also one of the most socially active of today’s artists. His artistic forms of expression cover practically all art forms – sculpture, painting, photography, video, installation, architecture, and site-specific projects. And for at least the last few years, Eliasson’s competition hasn’t even come close in terms of intensity in one’s creative capacity.

Cover of Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House. Camilla Kragelund with a mock-up of Deep Mirror (black), 2016. Photo: Runa Maya Mork Huber / Studio Olafur Eliasson. © Olafur Eliasson

Since the early days of his career, the inspiration and background for Eliasson’s creative body of work has been the natural environment of Iceland. Eliasson has said himself that nature verbalizes his thoughts. Utilizing elements of nature (fog, water, air, light, etc.) in conjunction with sometimes even quite simple technical methods, Eliasson manipulates the viewer’s emotions and optical vision; occasionally, even making the viewer’s physical image and drawn silhouette a legitimate part of the story for his work. Truth be told, just as deftly, but in the form of a complex structure, he addresses the relationships between nature and technology, thereby challenging accepted preconceptions, assumptions, and edges of perception from different vantage points, again and again.

Interestingly, all of Eliasson’s projects are conceived and worked out in one space – his Berlin studio, where he works with a team of 90 people. It is a very special and self-sustaining place; actually, it’s a complete microorganism – the functioning of which only a few select individuals have been allowed to witness.

Image from the publication Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House. Thomas Blumtritt-Hanisch, Matt Willard, and Jöran Imholze testing Deep mirror (black) and Deep mirror (yellow). Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa / Studio Olafur Eliasson. © Olafur Eliasson

The book Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House, which was made in close cooperation with the independent curator Joanna Warsza, is a reference to the Scandinavian tradition of welcoming guests to one’s home, and is, in fact, a self-portrait of Eliasson’s studio. It allows anyone who so wishes to see how art is created; it maps out the road that leads from an idea to the final artwork, as well as what it means to work within a team that includes not only assistants, but depending on the specific project, also architects, scientists, economists, psychologists, playwrights, and other professionals in a variety of fields.

Nothing in this process has been hidden or obscured, thereby only strengthening the feeling of authenticity. Readers of this new book can find out: what goes on in the studio’s kitchen (the team eats lunch together, and they’ve even published their own cookbook); get an insider’s view of the activities that take place in the metal and wood shops, which is where Eliasson’s objects are constructed; witness the often-times complex procedure of putting together an installation; and see what the art and architecture office that Eliasson has founded with the architect Sebastian Behmann looks like.

Image from the publication Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House. Olafur and the team testing a light and shadow installation. Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa / Studio Olafur Eliasson. © Olafur Eliasson

When asked by why he chose this moment to open the doors to his studio by way of a book, Eliasson answers: “People tend to focus on the objects, the artworks, the things that are solid. With this book, we hope to give people access to the inner life of the studio and to the committed people who work here – to give a sense of the studio’s vibrating life at its best and at its worst. I think it is important to understand that making art is a complex process, and that to step into an artist’s studio is not to step away from the world outside but, in fact, to step closer to the world. As I see it, life in the studio is reality in higher definition.”

Image from the publication Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House. Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson. © Olafur Eliasson

On one hand, the book is a cross-sectional study of both the artistry and the logistics that go on in Eliasson’s studio. On the other, it’s a sort of guide to the complicated and multi-layered dialog that takes place between Eliasson’s studio and the world outside; one which, at times, could be classified as a serious research process. This is especially true considering that one very innate aspect of Eliasson’s art has been (no matter how utopian it may sound) his calling to share with others – not only from a pragmatic and functional aspect, but also in terms of such humanistic qualities as hope, feelings, and soulfulness. He invites people to stop, feel, think, and get involved. Prime examples of this are Eliasson’s social art projects: Ice Watch, which was dedicated to global climate change and done in cooperation with the geologist Minik Rosing; and the project Little Sun, developed in cooperation with the engineer Frederik Ottesen and launched in 2012, which is based on a portable solar battery that can provided light or electric power in places where there is no reliable electric grid.

Testing materials and design in the metal workshop. Photo: Runa Maya Mork Huber / Studio Olafur Eliasson. © Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson’s latest social project is Green Light – An Artistic Workshop, which does double duty in both raising awareness about the refugee/migrant issue and providing real-life solutions. The project launched in 2016, and is also currently on view at the Venice Art Biennale, in the main exhibition Viva Arte Viva, as curated by by Christine Macel. In the project, refugees and asylum-seekers, together with other participants (artists, cultural producers, university students, teachers, athletics trainers, psychologists, etc.) make crystalline-shaped LED lamps with a green bulb – a useful object that metaphorically represents both cooperation and a welcoming attitude (as in a green traffic light). The intended audience is not only those who have been forced to leave their homes because of war or a dire economic situation, but also the citizens of the countries who are currently receiving these refugees.

Studio Olafur Eliasson – Open House

When asked outright if the idea behind publishing the book is directly linked to his social-art projects and his strong belief that interaction and collaborative work is one of the best ways to create a safer world, Eliasson answers: The book includes a number of socially-motivated artworks like Green light, Ice Watch, and Little Sun. But I don’t want to suggest that there are two streams – conventional art and social projects. A highly abstract work also has social agency. Everything is entangled, the more socially-oriented projects grow out of the same compost heap as everything else.”