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Olafur Eliasson interview: ‘The idea that you can be the happiest person in the world? Dreadful’

Olafur Eliasson's exhibition In Real Life is at Tate Modern until Jan 5 2020
Olafur Eliasson's exhibition In Real Life is at Tate Modern until Jan 5 2020 Credit: Tate

High above the wooden floor of Olafur Eliasson’s Copenhagen studio, a stuffed peacock is perched on the lintel, an owl hunched beside it. I wonder what their beady, dust-grimed eyes make of the scene below: the unicycle, or the pictures of dodecahedrons taped to the wall, or Eliasson himself, quiffed and mustachioed, jiggling his knee.

On the May afternoon we meet, the Danish-Icelandic artist is preparing for an exhibition at Tate Modern: around 40 of his works, old and new, are already making their way to London, and Eliasson says he wonders if they are also travelling in time, to meet us in the here and now. 

“Though, that is perhaps a bit mathematical,” he adds, grinning. “Is this in any bloody way the direction you wanted to take the conversation? Because sometimes I go sailing off sideways.” 

At 52, Eliasson is gracious and precise, small but not slight, and though his conversation leans towards the intellectual, it also glitters with humour. He is best known for large-scale installation works that recreate natural phenomena – waterfalls, rainbows, landscapes; enjoyable pieces that refresh our relationship with reality.

Recently though, Eliasson has been turning his artist-philosopher brain in other directions: towards climate change, migration, education and architecture. He has collaborated with chefs, choreographers and politicians, and founded a social business providing portable solar lamps and phone chargers to the 1.1 billion people around the world who live without electricity. 

The Weather Project (2003) by Eliasson Credit: Tate

“He just decided he wanted to have a different kind of conversation,” explains curator Mark Godfrey, who is hoping the Tate exhibition will expand Britain’s grasp of Eliasson beyond The Weather Project, the 2003 artwork that washed the Turbine Hall in the yellow glow of a huge artificial sun. I ask Eliasson why he thinks the public connected so strongly with that work. “I think it was because people enjoyed sharing the experience, but they did not necessarily feel they were being asked to be the same,” he says. “Some saw the apocalypse, others something more contemplative, and everybody felt comfortable not agreeing.” 

The Weather Project doesn’t feature in the new exhibition. Instead, Eliasson gives us a hosepipe that produces a sparkling rainbow, a kaleidoscopic tunnel whose mirrored insides reflect both the place you’ve come from and the one towards which you’re headed, and a strobe-illuminated fountain that has the appearance of a static ice sculpture. 

The works are all, as he puts it, “co-authored” by the viewer, meaning they are only complete when being experienced. “How do people move their hands when they are near something that looks nice to touch?” he asks, rhetorically. “I’ve watched, you know, and they wriggle.”

He thinks we understand the world with our bodies, more so than we are aware. But then – he would. When he was a teenager, he and two friends won the Scandinavian breakdancing championship. He tells me it was the only time in his life he wasn’t using his head (except to spin on). 

He competed in a silver spandex costume that his Icelandic mother had run up for him on her sewing machine. Its shoulders, elbows and knee pads had pink detailing, modelled after a suit from the James Bond film Moonraker, though he was also “fixated” by Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer and the shape-shifting chrome police officer in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and all three contributed to his look. 

Your Uncertain Shadow (Colour) (2010) by Eliasson Credit: Tate

He practised for between four and six hours every day, and even now follows more breakdancers than artists on Instagram. He’s eager to show me a breakdancing video on his phone, one he saved yesterday, except now he can’t find it. Scroll, scroll. Fear not, he has hundreds of others. “This is getting nerdy,” he says, and as the dancer on his screen hits his bodypopping stride, I glimpse what Eliasson might have been like at 14. “This is, like, incredible… and then he goes into another… it’s totally crazy,” he gasps. “It’s just, this is a guy, fooling around, with the talent of a Zen master. See? Ha!”

There is a video on YouTube of Eliasson rocking a few moves of his own on the roof of his Berlin studio, where he spends two days a week. A former brewery in the city’s Mitte district, it also houses researchers, architects, and metal and wood workers – about 120 people in all, many of whom have been working with him for decades. Four days a week, everyone congregates for a locally sourced, organic, vegetarian lunch. On the day I visit, it’s quiche, green beans and grapefruit kombucha. “Olafur likes to think he’s keeping us living longer,” says his communications officer, Catriona.

The meal is served in a bright room with long tables. Eliasson’s chair is in the corner, a mid-century piece resembling a giant black tongue. Propped against the wall is an X-ray of his head, along with 460 illuminated light bulbs, some a century old, one acquired the previous week from his friend, the filmmaker Wim Wenders. “I think they’re beautiful,” says Eliasson. “I look on them as old warriors, but they lost the war. Light is digital now.”

Back in Copenhagen, Eliasson has brought out a book of copperplate etchings of Iceland, printed in the Thirties. The craggy grandeur of the Icelandic landscape has featured in his photographic works, and he fizzes when describing it now. Behind him on the wall is a cute painting by his daughter, of a twig-armed girl standing – appropriately – under a big sun. It must be old because Alma is 13 now. She and her brother Zakarias, 15, were adopted by Eliasson and his wife (Marianne, an art historian) in Ethiopia. He says he might have overfed them on art when they were small, “because now they think what I do is totally boring”. 

Cold Wind Sphere (2012) by Eliasson Credit: Tate/Jens Ziehe

As the afternoon wears on, he pulls out an acoustic guitar and starts to play – some Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee, a favourite of his father’s. “Actually this is his old guitar,” says Eliasson, before explaining that he uses the instrument as an outlet for his sentimentality, in order to “prevent it from sliding into the art… it’s a very corruptive feeling.”

Eliasson’s parents divorced when he was a toddler, too young to remember, he says, though he credits a desire to please his father as being one of the reasons he became an artist in the first place. “He would send pens for me to make drawings, which I would take with me when I visited him in Iceland.” He pauses. “It gave us a shared space, but now I look back at those drawings and I think maybe I was a little obsessive, because I would fill the paper to the edge, which is how people in madhouses draw, isn’t it? But I got really confident, and good. Until I got to puberty, when I said ‘Pfft, art, how boring is that? I’m going to be a breakdancer instead.’”

I ask, perhaps unwisely, if he’s inherited the Icelandic temperament. “Is there such a thing?” he says, “I think we have just been brought to think so because of the f------ Game of Thrones – all this northerners crap. We should be very careful with the genetics of behaviour – because it is a currency that is floating about and it lends itself to nationalism so well.” 

Later, he lets slip that growing up in a Protestant society might be one reason why he’s wary of seeing happiness as a goal. “I’m not interested in this escapist notion promoted by self-help books,” he says. “The idea that you can be the happiest person in the world? Dreadful.” He suffers what he calls “macro despairs”, most of which are about climate change, an issue that often drives his work, though he isn’t one of the “no meat, no flying” tribe. “I really respect them, their going back to the cave, but I don’t subscribe to it,” he says. “Those of us who are left need to re-engineer the systems with which we run our planet.” 

'I'm your average, middle-of-the road person': Eliasson

Then there’s his “micro despairs” – usually frustration with his work, or the feeling that he has become overly comfortable. “I’m your average, middle-of-the-road person who makes the same mistakes,” he says. 

Has ageing been an interesting process for him? “No, it is the least interesting thing.” He pauses. “Let me be a little more sophisticated: just this year I’ve had the experience that, having done things so many times, I have started to relax. But in this interview, I’m pretending to be interesting and smart. The truth is, I’m really not sure. I’m as insecure as I ever was. I’m just better at hiding it.”

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Modern, London SE1 (tate.org.uk) until Jan 5 2020