On the cover: Olafur Eliasson interview
Our stunning cover art for DG #38 is courtesy of Olafur Eliasson, the acclaimed Danish-Icelandic artist best known for his ambitious installations with the environment at their heart. In 2003 he bathed the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with the light from an artificial sunset and five years later placed 24 huge ice blocks outside the gallery so that Londoners could watch them melt. For Earth Day 2020, with much of the world in lockdown, the Berlin-based artist collaborated with the Serpentine Gallery to create Earth perspectives, an ambitious, interactive, series of artworks that encourage the viewer to participate from home.
Marcus Webb spoke to him for our latest issue about lockdown, the climate emergency and why we need other people now more than ever. You can see the full set of Earth perspective images here and copies of the magazine are available from our shop or take out a subscription using the promo code ‘38FORFREE’ and we’ll send you the issue for free.
What can you tell us about the creation of Earth perspectives, the series which includes our cover image?
The idea was to make a little exercise that reveals how you yourself create the world, you co-produce the Earth. I chose nine different images of Earth in reversed colours. If you stare at them intently, an afterimage remains in your eyes once they’ve disappeared, and the afterimage is in the actual colours we are used to seeing our planet in, green and blue. Because this image is in your eyes, in your sensory apparatus, you in a sense are the one who makes the artwork – you are the artist.
The artwork invites mass participation and plays with perception – how has it been received?
In a sense the digital aspect of the work makes it possible to reach people more directly at this moment in time when we’re all focusing on socially isolating. It’s a nice exercise for staying at home, being confined to a small, domestic space and thinking about the vastness of the planet.
How important is perception when it comes to climate issues?
For me, perception is key to how we approach, interpret and produce reality. I first became fascinated by the phenomenon of the afterimage, for example, because I realised it demonstrated how clearly reality is not only about the object out there in the world being perceived but also about our own sensory apparatus. The afterimage is a relic of what we have seen that is produced by our eyes and brain. It is inside us. There is, I believe, a liberating potential in reflecting on our senses, on perception, in seeing our own role in how we create the world. Understanding that we are co-creating our shared reality can be empowering and can lead to action.
How did you choose the locations?
I considered the significance of a number of locations on Earth that I felt were not perhaps the centres of power or expected, but were important for other reasons. I chose the Ganges river in India, for instance, because it was granted legal personhood in 2017. It was also about presenting a view of the world that is maybe unexpected, unconventional, encouraging people to look at the Earth anew.
Do you think Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the environment?
I believe it is important that we take the time to empathise with all those who are suffering under this crisis – including those beyond our own communities and nations. It also represents a moment to imagine the Earth that we want to inhabit in the future. To a certain extent thinking about sustainability is similar to what is going on as a result of the current corona crisis: we are being forced to reconsider the way we do things. We are finally reflecting on how we change business as usual. And it is difficult, but we mustn’t stop.
How have you spent the lockdown?
Just like most people, I have been dealing with the impact of the virus on my way of life and working. At my studio in Berlin, we quickly adopted alternative ways of working. This was only possible because of measures to support culture that are in place in Germany. For me personally, the need to stay put in a single place for a long time and to radically reduce my travelling has been positive. It has given me time to slow down, think, read and reflect. It’s also inspired us to find ways of exhibiting that don’t require people to be in the same space and to try out new technologies, like augmented reality, which I’ve used in my new artwork Wunderkammer, 2020, developed with Acute Art for their app, which you can download from the App Store or from Google Play. For that work you can use AR to conjure a series of strange, unexpected things into your own surroundings: a rainbow, a cloud of mist, a puffin. I had been interested in trying something similar out for years, but it took the right moment to give it urgency.
How important is art right now?
I personally take heart from the fact that many people are now turning to cultural expressions in these times of physical distancing, sharing art online even though they are not coming together physically. Getting together around art, also online, is a way of finding space for imagination, of inventing worlds, of being together while staying apart. And now, as people are returning to the street in great numbers to protest police brutality and systemic racism – not only in the United States, but around the world – culture has an extremely important role to play.
What do you think the lasting impact of Covid-19 will be?
What Covid-19 has proven is that we are all intertwined, that we need each other now more than ever. As my good friend Andreas Roepstorff has said, I believe in social proximity while practising physical distancing. I am working with Andreas and the studio on a new project called ‘We used to’. It is a website where people can upload statements connected to their experience of life and society in these times.
What are you working on next?
I am working with children across the EU to create a digital project, called Earth Speakr, that coincides with the German presidency of the EU. I’m incredibly excited about this project, as it allows children around the EU, and eventually around the world, to bring their ideas about helping the planet to people in power.
You can see more of Eliasson’s work at olafureliasson.net
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