One of the great challenges today is that we often feel untouched by the problems of others and by global issues like climate change, even when we could easily do something to help. We do not feel strongly enough that we are part of a global community, part of a larger we. Giving people access to data most often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disconnected, not empowered and poised for action. This is where art can make a difference. Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.
As an artist I have travelled to many countries around the world over the past 20 years. On one day I may stand in front of an audience of global leaders or exchange thoughts with a foreign minister and discuss the construction of an artwork or exhibition with local craftsmen the next. Working as an artist has brought me into contact with a wealth of outlooks on the world and introduced me to a vast range of truly differing perceptions, felt ideas, and knowledge. Being able to take part in these local and global exchanges has profoundly affected the artworks that I make, driving me to create art that I hope touches people everywhere.
Most of us know the feeling of being moved by a work of art, whether it is a song, a play, a poem, a novel, a painting, or a spatio-temporal experiment. When we are touched, we are moved; we are transported to a new place that is, nevertheless, strongly rooted in a physical experience, in our bodies. We become aware of a feeling that may not be unfamiliar to us but which we did not actively focus on before. This transformative experience is what art is constantly seeking.
I believe that one of the major responsibilities of artists – and the idea that artists have responsibilities may come as a surprise to some – is to help people not only get to know and understand something with their minds but also to feel it emotionally and physically. By doing this, art can mitigate the numbing effect created by the glut of information we are faced with today, and motivate people to turn thinking into doing.
Engaging with art is not simply a solitary event. The arts and culture represent one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share an experience even if they see the world in radically different ways. The important thing is not that we agree about the experience that we share, but that we consider it worthwhile sharing an experience at all. In art and other forms of cultural expression, disagreement is accepted and embraced as an essential ingredient. In this sense, the community created by arts and culture is potentially a great source of inspiration for politicians and activists who work to transcend the polarising populism and stigmatisation of other people, positions, and worldviews that is sadly so endemic in public discourse today.
Art also encourages us to cherish intuition, uncertainty, and creativity and to search constantly for new ideas; artists aim to break rules and find unorthodox ways of approaching contemporary issues. My friend Ai Weiwei, for example, the great Chinese artist, is currently making a temporary studio on the island of Lesbos to draw attention to the plight of the millions of migrants trying to enter Europe right now and also to create a point of contact that takes us beyond an us-and-them mentality to a broader idea of what constitutes we. This is one way that art can engage with the world to change the world.
Little Sun, a solar energy project and social business that I set up in 2012 with engineer Frederik Ottesen, is another example of what I believe art can do. Light is so incredibly important to me, and many of my works use light as their primary material. The immaterial qualities of light shape life. Light is life. This is why we started Little Sun.
On a practical level, we work to promote solar energy for all – Little Sun responds to the need to develop sustainable, renewable energy by producing and distributing affordable solar-powered lamps and mobile chargers, focusing especially on reaching regions of the world that do not have consistent access to an electrical grid. At the same time, Little Sun is also about making people feel connected to the lives of others in places that are far away geographically. For those who pick up a Little Sun solar lamp, hold it in their hands, and use it to light their evening, the lamp communicates a feeling of having resources and of being powerful. With Little Sun you tap into the energy of the sun to power up with solar energy. It takes something that belongs to all of us – the sun – and makes it available to each of us. This feeling of having personal power is something we can all identify with. Little Sun creates a community based around this feeling that spans the globe.
I am convinced that by bringing us together to share and discuss, a work of art can make us more tolerant of difference and of one another. The encounter with art – and with others over art – can help us identify with one another, expand our notions of we, and show us that individual engagement in the world has actual consequences. That’s why I hope that in the future, art will be invited to take part in discussions of social, political, and ecological issues even more than it is currently and that artists will be included when leaders at all levels, from the local to the global, consider solutions to the challenges that face us in the world today.
Olafur Eliasson is one of the recipients of this year's Crystal Awards, presented at the Annual Meeting in Davos. You can follow him on Twitter via @olafureliasson
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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Spotlight Essay: Olafur Eliasson, Your Imploded View, 2001
December 2007; updated 2016
Associate Curator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
At fifty-one inches in diameter and over six hundred pounds, Your Imploded View appears at first glance like a massive wrecking ball, menacingly suspended just a few feet above the heads of all who pass through the Museum’s atrium. When set in motion, the tension increases as the aluminum sphere moves rhythmically on a north-south axis, inducing sensations of surprise and trepidation among those individuals in close proximity. In addition to its kinetic and temporal character, the sphere’s uneven and reflective surface distorts the surrounding space, creating new images of the museum environment and engaging the viewer in an active dialogue with it.
Central to all of Olafur Eliasson’s work is the experience of the viewer. What the artist is after is “the self-reflexive potential in art: our ability to evaluate ourselves in our surroundings.”1 His oft-recited mantra “seeing oneself seeing” aptly articulates his ambition for the individual spectator and for society as a whole.2 A close reading of Your Imploded View allows for an examination of the various implications of Eliasson’s call for a proactive subject, including his principal belief that heightened awareness of the subjective character of perception may provide a means toward greater social consciousness in everyday life, as opposed to the pacifying effects of mass-media entertainment.
Eliasson’s emphasis on activated spectatorship and its implied relationship to active engagement in the sociopolitical arena directly builds on a long line of artistic precedents, including the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy’s experiments with light, space, and motion in the early twentieth century and the Zero group’s production of kinetic sculptures and light events in the late 1950s in Düsseldorf. The California-based Light and Space artists’ focus on the contingent character of the viewer’s sensory experience in the late 1960s and the perceptual investigations undertaken by the American artists Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman in the 1970s are also frequently singled out as among the artist’s more immediate influences.3 Eliasson’s work, like that of his predecessors, explores the ways in which the subject’s encounter with his or her surroundings prompts larger revelations about the nature of perception itself.
Eliasson’s debt to phenomenological philosophy has been pointed out by critics and by the artist himself, who often returns to the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Henri Bergson, and Edmund Husserl, with whom he shares the conviction that perception is not simply a question of vision but involves the whole body and that what one perceives is dependent on being at any one moment physically present in a matrix of unfolding circumstances that determine how and what one perceives. Rather than presupposing a “neutral” or “universal” subject detached from any specific social context, however, a point that critics of phenomenological theory have taken issue with since the 1970s, Eliasson emphasizes the nonprescriptive individuality of the spectator’s responses.4 The greatest potential of phenomenology, he claims, is its ability to introduce an element of relativity and uncertainty into one’s routine experience of space and time.5
The artist frequently employs the possessive “your” in the titles of his works to emphasize the primacy of the viewers’ embodied reception. He intentionally plays on the ambiguity between a singular “your” and a collective “your” that might potentially arise in relation to his work.6 Looking at the reflective sphere of Your Imploded View, spectators enter into a disorienting experience in which neither subject (viewer) nor object (artwork) can claim dominance, as the two are in fact intertwined. The dings and black pockmarks covering the uneven surface of the work not only highlight the fact that the ball was handmade but also complicate the distinction between reality and representation. Unlike a mirror, in which one merely looks at a reflection of oneself, the polished aluminum presents a softened, warped, and thus overtly mediated image meant to heighten our ability to see ourselves seeing the artwork—to experience ourselves from both a third-person and a first-person perspective.7
It is important to recognize that Eliasson’s art is never solely about private experience; it is also about social interaction. While we see ourselves seeing, we also become aware of others negotiating the same work simultaneously. Through disorientation, Your Imploded View, like the majority of Eliasson’s works, is intended to expose the degree to which our shared reality is culturally constructed and thus help us to reflect more critically on our experience of it.8 While bodily interaction is crucial, the artist also draws attention to the fact that it is not only our immediate corporeal experiences that need to be taken into account but also our individual psychological states, as “our memories and expectations also have a highly individual impact on how we perceive what we see.”9 The meaning of the encounter in the atrium is thus deeply relational and constantly changeable, depending entirely on who you are and what you are doing, as well as on the presence of others sharing the same space. The experience can be considered communal, but not universal, as each individual always brings something different to the work.
Eliasson’s installations are undeniably popular in their appeal and have received both praise and criticism for their awe-inspiring and generally spectacular character.10 It could be argued that Your Imploded View does little more than playfully alter the gallery space and that Eliasson’s critique is so subtle and theoretical that its relationship to the viewer’s actual experience of the work is often lost.11 While the artist embraces diverse interpretations of his work, he also ardently asserts that his practice is a form of institutional critique. Unlike those practitioners of institutional critique in the 1970s who staged grand oppositions, Eliasson recognizes that the museum and the artist are unavoidably linked and attempts to alter the perception of the institution by emphasizing each visitor’s subjective position, for, as he states, “changing a basic viewpoint necessarily must mean that everything else changes perspective accordingly.”12 In the case of Your Imploded View, the sphere simultaneously reflects and implicates not only the body of the individual viewer but also the architectural environment, along with the constructed arrangement of artworks hanging on the building’s white walls, the bodies of other people negotiating the social space of the atrium, and even the outside world glimpsed through the glass walls that flank the north and south entrances.
The curator and art historian Madeleine Grynsztejn deftly summarized Eliasson’s position as one that ultimately sets out “less to deconstruct the museum antagonistically than to embolden it as a place from which to articulate a speculative and critical approach.”13 In opposition to what he understands to be a dominant trend toward universalized and increasingly standardized experiences in today’s consumer culture, Eliasson holds faith in the museum as one possible site “where we can still use our senses to define our surroundings, rather than just being defined by our surroundings by means of the commodification of our bodies.”14 Through both his work and his extensive writings, he challenges the museum to separate itself from commercial venues—to preserve an oppositional space, however provisional, for discussion, negotiation, and potential dissent from the prevailing logic of consumer culture. Providing an experience of sharpened awareness, not only of the work of art but also of our position in relation to the institution, is regarded by the artist as a social responsibility. His call for change is not directed at external considerations but, as exemplified by Your Imploded View, at organizing a consciousness of one’s perceiving body within the ideological framework of the museum. For Eliasson, purposeful engagement with the world is an ethical imperative, and it is through an intense focus on the subjective moment of perception—the root condition of all subsequent inquiry—that independent thinking and social action become possible.
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Olafur Eliasson, Your Imploded View, 2001. Polished aluminum, 51 3/16" diam. University purchase, Parsons Fund, 2005. WU 2005.0002.