Olafur Eliasson - Biography and Legacy
Danish-Icelandic Sculptor, Painter, Photographer, and Designer
Biography of Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1967, a year after his 21-year-old parents, Elías Hjörleifsson and Ingibjörg Olafsdottir, immigrated to the city from Iceland. His mother, who was from an Icelandic fishing village dating back to the 11th century, found work as a dressmaker, while his father, who was an amateur artist, found work as a cook on a fishing boat. His father's family was from Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, where they were part of a small artistic community. Eliasson's grandmother was a photographer and his grandfather, who abandoned his family when Elías was young, was a publisher of avant-garde literature. Eliasson's own parents, who were young and inexperienced, divorced when he was four. Elías, following in his own father's footsteps, moved back to Iceland, leaving a young Olafur fatherless throughout much of his childhood and adolescence. During his infrequent trips to visit his father, Eliasson began making drawings as a way to impress him. By the time he was 14 he could draw every bone in the human body, and at 15, he had his first art show - displaying several landscape paintings at an alternative art space in Denmark.
As a teenager, Eliasson displayed a natural aptitude for art, but had no real aspirations to become an artist. Instead, he spent most of his time breakdancing after discovering the dance form on an American television show. "We lived in the countryside at the time, on a little farm, and I remember that for months and months I just moved around like a robot. In the beginning I was really bad at it," recalled Eliasson. "It must've been funny to see me moving around the cows and horses... I'm sure I was the only robotic electric boogie dancer with eyeliner." After forming the "Harlem Gun Crew" with two friends, the group, dressed in silver spandex made by Eliasson's mother, would perform at clubs around Copenhagen and competed internationally, eventually winning the Scandinavian breakdancing championship twice.
1987 would become a turning point in Eliasson's life. During the tumultuous year, his grandfather killed himself and his father was hospitalized for alcoholism, requiring Olafur to move to Iceland in order to care for his two-year-old half sister, Anna Viktoria. Out of mere boredom, Eliasson decided to apply to art school, and was duly accepted to the prestigious Royal Danish Academy of Art. "I would be lying if I said there wasn't an element of escapism in my interest in art as a teenager," he said. "Making no sense seemed more attractive to me than making sense. Applying to art school was a lovely way for me to disconnect. Once I got there, though, I realized that art is about connecting. Instead of stepping out of the world, I was stepping right into the heart of it. This was a revelation for me. I thought it was only about being a good artist so that my father would like me. But it was more about shaping the world."
This notion of art as being a crucial means for turning thinking into doing within the world would lay the foundation for Eliasson's eventual foray into Social Practice, an art medium focused on engagement through human interaction and social discourse.
During his time at the art academy Eliasson was given a travel budget, and in 1990 he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he worked for a period as a studio assistant for the minimalist painter, Christian Eckart. During this time he also became a voracious reader and immersed himself in philosophy and scientific theories. He became especially intrigued with natural science and phenomenological philosophy, and its emphasis on an individual's experience of reality. How a person interprets reality would become a consistent niche for Eliasson's work.
Shortly after graduation from art school in 1995, Eliasson's ephemeral sculptures, which poignantly articulated natural phenomenon, were being exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. At the same time he was finding international success, Eliasson also reconnected with his father, who had recovered from his illness. Elías would even sometimes cook for his son's gallery openings, and this relationship continued until Elías's death in 2002 from pulmonary fibrosis.
In 1995, Eliasson established Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin with an emphasis on collaboration. Founded as a "laboratory for spatial research," it would become a space to engage with architects, engineers, craftsman, and assistants to conceive and construct large-scale projects, installations, and sculpture that embodied Eliasson's interests in perception, movement, experience, and feelings of self within both the manmade and natural worlds.
For example, in 1996 Eliasson started working with architect and geometry expert Einar Thorsteinn to create pieces such as 8900054, a 30-foot wide and seven-foot high stainless steel dome that appeared to be growing directly from the ground. The piece caused viewers to reflect upon things that are in constant development deep beneath ordinary surfaces.
In 1997 Eliasson was asked to contribute to the Danish pavilion at the São Paulo Biennial where he met Danish art historian and pavilion curator Marianne Krogh Jensen. The two connected over an altruistic desire to help those less fortunate. After marrying in 2003 they adopted two children from Ethiopia - a son in 2003 and a daughter in 2006.
Starting in the early 2000s and with the help of his innovative studio collaborators, Eliasson began thinking of his socially engaged art as a means to affect change on a global scale. From 2009 to 2014, he imparted these philosophies as a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts. In 2012, he created Little Suns, portable solar lamps, which allow impoverished communities without access to electricity the ability to see in the dark. He also used proceeds from the sale of his art to establish, along with his wife, 121Ethiopia, a foundation that funds African orphanages.
A global artist concerned with the welfare of the world, today Eliasson travels the globe discussing how art can have a positive impact on humanity's future. And while Eliasson's art takes him all over the world, he often brings his family along in his travels, determined not to make the same mistakes his own father made with him.
In 2014, along with architect Sebastian Behmann, Eliasson established an architectural counterpoint to Studio Olafur Eliasson called Studio Other Spaces, which focuses on interdisciplinary and experimental building projects and works in public spaces.
Today, Eliasson commutes between Copenhagen, where his family resides, and his studios in Berlin. With over 80 employees, the studio now functions more like a laboratory, where experimentation and exploration into many arenas including science, architecture, geometry, space, the environment, and natural phenomena combine to inform the creation of participatory art for individuals, institutions, and communities.
The Legacy of Olafur Eliasson
In striving to make art concerned with the issues of society at large, Eliasson's artistic practice, along with fellow socially engaged artists, Ai Weiwei, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Theaster Gates, helped form the Social Practice movement. Like the earlier Relational Aesthetics artists, these works take human relations and social discourse as their starting point. Yet, unlike the slightly earlier generation, rather than produce work for art institutions, these artists aim to generate social change by means of collaboration and through the creation of participatory art outside of the gallery system.
Reimagining art's role within a global society, Eliasson utilizes his art for causes that were once the domain of activists and environmentalists. Like other Social Practice artists, Eliasson now demands that art have a social conscience. "Nowadays, art has great potential for changing the world and improving people's lives," he explains. "Partly because it can nurture a degree of trust... And it can bring about not only the potential for feeling, but also for acting."