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Sustainability in Art Focus On: Olafur Eliason

Olafur Eliason’s works are driving the climate change conversation within the art world.

Earth Speakr Loud Speakr, Reichstag, Berlin, Germany, July 2020

Olafur Eliason is an Icelandic-Danish artist, known for his multi-sensory installations that encourage the viewer to reflect on their surroundings and perception of the physical world. Eliason’s works grapple with challenging topics of ecology, the climate and perception. However, the sense of awe that runs through his work allows them to be fuelled with hope.

You may recognise Olafur Eliasson’s name from the large-scale installation The Weather Project (2003) that dominated the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with a burning orange haze. This work is in true Eliason style, creating texture, atmosphere and confronting the viewer with a huge illusory sun. The project reportedly attracted two million visitors and through the emotional shared experience that Eliason created, the audience was confronted with their position within the world and the need for community to preserve it. Through the project “he wanted to create the illusion of a meteorological event-a sort of big sunset.” Perhaps, this is the setting of the sun on the earth as we know it due to climate change. Literally bringing the heat into the art gallery, evoking dual feelings of awe and a sense of threat. Nevertheless, this sense of awe overrides and the desire to preserve the beauty of the world prevails.

Eliason’s strength comes from his ability to connect; connect art and nature and people to their environment. This is most evident within the installation Ice Watch. Eliason teamed up with geologist Minik Rosing to create this installation where twenty-four blocks of ice were exhibited in front of the Tate Modern in 2018.

The installation brought the typical image of a melting iceberg, that dominates climate change iconography, directly into the viewers physical reality making it impossible to ignore. The physical encounter with something usually so other, so distant encourages emotive and active responses from the viewer to the reality of melting arctic ice.

When installed, the ice blocks weighed between 1.5 and 5 tonnes, coming from Greenland after becoming detached from and ice sheet. Over a period of ten days the ice blocks melted. The temporary nature of the exhibition brings to the fore the fragility and transience of nature, confronting the viewer with the direct impact of climate change. This direct connection makes the work so powerful in driving the climate conversation and encouraging physical change and emotion.

As Mark Godfrey states “hope is at the core of Studio Olafur Eliasson, an optimistic drive to make the world a better place.” This hope is driven by the connections that Eliason’s work forge between one another and the environment. Through a sense of community there is an encouragement to act and better understand sustainability and climate change.

Commenting on the environment, Art and Activism in 2021, Eliasson stated that

“Art and activism can heighten attention to and perception of situations that may have been invisible, overlooked or neglected” and that the “climate crisis is a collective action problem.”

Through Eliason’s work he encourages the viewer into action by confronting us with the invisible and neglected situations of melting ice and rising temperatures which are seen within his works The Weather Project and Ice Watch.

Another of Eliason’s projects that encourages connection is Earth Speakr. The artwork invited kids to speak up for the planet and record their messages on an app that was active between 2020 and 2022. These messages can now be heard on the Earth Speakr Map with over 10,000 messages about the future of our planet.

This is such a brilliant project, highlighting the voices of the youth who are drivers of the climate change conversation. The work created connections across the globe, linking kids together in their desire to see change, voice their worries and opinions on climate change and ultimately to be heard. In describing the work Eliason states that

“Earth Speakr invites kids to speak their hearts and minds and participate in shaping our world and the planet, today and in the future.”

Earth Speakr became a safe space for kids to speak about their concerns on climate change, something that is so important in elevating climate anxiety, an anxiety rooted in uncertainty about the future. A global survey completed in December 2021 that surveyed 10,000 16-25 year olds found that 59% of participants were very or extremely worried about climate change. A space such as Earth Speakr is perfect to allow kids to feel less alone and share their anxieties or worries about climate change.

Earth Speakr, the Weather Project and Ice Watch are all prime examples of how Eliasson uses art as activism, connecting his audience to their surroundings and the distant problems of climate change, encouraging action and hope.

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