Published On: Fri, Jul 12th, 2013

Eliasson’s Teeming Studio Sends Solar Lamps to Ethiopia

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Romantic notions of artists struggling in garrets have never appeared more outdated. Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin is the headquarters of an enterprise operating in five continents.

Denmark-born artist Olafur Eliasson, in front of the Brooklyn Bridge and his newly unveiled public art installation “The New York City Waterfalls” in 2008. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Danish-Icelandic artist’s staff of about 80 includes film-makers, metal-workers, architects, archivists, cooks and accountants. They are spread over four floors of a revamped brewery in the eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg. A stroll through the airy premises reveals the breadth of Eliasson’s projects: a building in Copenhagen, a new exhibition, even a cookbook.

His seven-year-old daughter careens around the dining area in a noisy electric car. We find quiet on the top floor, where Eliasson’s “Little Sun” business is based — a project to bring solar-powered lamps to people without electricity via local distributors and retailers.

Eliasson has turned a Swedish river green, installed waterfalls in New York and built a giant fake sun at the Tate Modern in London. In Berlin, he created a magical crystal palace with mirrors and a skylight.

“I have learned a lot in the art world about getting things done,” he says. “Frankly, if you can do a pavilion for the Venice Biennale, then you can set up a kiosk on the moon.”

In baggy faded jeans and a striped shirt, 46-year-old Eliasson looks as tired as you’d expect from anyone who is both a parent of young kids and the founder of a successful startup. Yet he speaks passionately about his projects, particularly Little Sun. He’s excited about an e-mail telling him a retailer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has sold 15 in a week.

Market Disconnect

I remind him that three years ago, before his exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau, he said Berlin allowed him to feel detached from the art market. Does that still hold — and can he afford to disconnect now he has 80 employees?

“There is the art world and there is the art-market world of fairs, auctions, galleries, magazines,” Eliasson says. “They do not completely overlap.”

The market, he says, “subversively influences the production of art.” That influence is greater in London, New York or Paris than in Berlin, he says.

“The majority of artists here are between 20 and 25 which allows for a culture where there is a strong absence of market forces,” he says. “As a playground for artists to nurture their potential, it’s a relatively healthy environment.”

Keeping Distance

The fact that his work doesn’t tend to appeal to private collectors because of its low resale value helps him to keep a distance from the primary market and volatile auction results.

“Water installations and very complex light installations and experiential work — which is to a large extent ephemeral — are on the periphery of the general market,” he says.

“For instance, Eli Broad, who without doubt has a stunning collection, has said openly on various occasions — if you can’t create it, he doesn’t want to own it,” Eliasson says. “If it’s not a solid object, he doesn’t know if he has it.”

For Eliasson, that is a “commodified” way of thinking about art. His work often creates communal experiences in public spaces, and strives to be inclusive.

The social aspect of Eliasson’s work may explain why more than half the money coming into his studio is from public funds. Mayors, politicians, museum directors and heads of foundations are regular visitors. (Melinda Gates dropped by the previous week.)

Eliasson enjoys harnessing market forces for his Little Sun project. The lamps, which he developed with engineer Frederik Ottesen, are offered at low prices to retailers in parts of the world without electricity, and sold at higher prices in developed areas.

His most successful sales force is in Zimbabwe, he says.

“We have 100 young kids selling lamps,” Eliasson says. “We started last August, giving them 300 for free. Now they just ordered 6,000 lamps and paid 11,000 euros and transferred the money up front before they got the lamps.”

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