‘The everyday life of the unforeseen’, 2021

‘Not-yet-conceived flare from a nearby, more-than-human future’, 2021. Photo credit: Jens Ziehe

Olafur Eliasson and Kumi Naidoo – On Art and Activism

On the occasion of COP 26 in Glasgow, Olafur Eliasson and Kumi Naidoo discuss if art and activism can learn from each other.

Kumi Naidoo is an activist and former Secretary-General of Amnesty International and former Executive Director of Greenpeace. He is currently a Bosch Academy Fellow and a Global Ambassador for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.

COP 26 in Glasgow is a definitive moment for heads of state, global leaders, and their teams to make binding decisions to significantly slow down the effects of climate change. Our actions today will shape the course of the next decade and beyond. It is an important opportunity to ask ourselves and one another: how can we work collaboratively across disciplines and geographic, cultural, and national borders, and in a manner that takes into account the needs of multiple generations and of all species, in order to navigate towards a safe and more just future? The climate crisis is a collective action problem – there is no one way to tackle this.

Together they discuss, in the face of the climate crisis, how can the work of artists help create change? And what can activism achieve – can it be done differently?

People in the crowd illuminate Little Sun torches during the Pathway to Paris event at the Theatre Royal during COP26, this year's UN climate change conference, in Glasgow. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

‘The presence of absence pavilion’, 2019. On view at Expo 2020 Dubai – the first world fair to be held in the Middle East – now through 31 March 2022.

‘Waterfall’, 2004, ARoS Art Museum, Denmark, 2004. Installed in both interior and exterior locations, the cascading waterfall evokes the sight, sounds, and rhythm of a natural waterfall. The clearly exposed construction allows viewers to understand the mechanism behind the phenomenon. Photo: Poul Pedersen

Future Assembly project logo, 2021. To learn more about the project, visit the dedicated website https://futureassembly.earth/.

The Venice Biennale Architettura 2021 asks, How will we live together?

Future Assembly is a response to curator Hashim Sarkis’s invitation to imagine a design inspired by the United Nations ­– the current paradigm for a multilateral assembly. We invited all Biennale participants to come together and offer more-than-human Stakeholders from their local situations for Future Assembly, in order to find novel, imaginative ways of spatially representing diverse, nonhuman agencies. More than 50 proposed new planetary representatives now make up the Assembly. Surrounding the central assembly, Future Assembly Chart forms a living collection of attempts by humans to recognise and secure the rights-of-nature.

We believe that our future imaginaries must include the more-than-human – that which both includes and exceeds humanity. The more-than-human is the many entanglements of human existence with living and nonliving entities, all of which have a stake in the planet’s future. The more-than-human means more than just nonhuman: It is the many overlapping spheres of human, nonhuman, living, and nonliving existence; it is as much a situation as any entity. One snapshot of the more-than-human could be the Sahara winds carrying desert sands high into the atmosphere and across the Atlantic, seeding the Amazon rainforest with vital nutrients that grow the ‘lungs of Earth’. Yet another could be the human decimation of the wolf population in Yellowstone, breaking a single link in the food chain and unleashing a cascade of effects that literally throws a whole river off course. The more-than-human is also the flipside – the reintroduction of that wolf species to the same park, transforming an entire habitat and even recalibrating its microclimate. The more-than-human challenges perceived boundaries of human identity and swells the definition of ‘we’.

Future Assembly is a response to Biennale curator Hashim Sarkis’s invitation to imagine a multilateral design, inspired by the United Nations, for his exhibition in the Central Pavilion. The United Nations – the paradigm for a multilateral assembly of the twentieth century – was founded in 1945 in response to political, social, economic, and humanitarian crises. Today, an equally radical response to the urgent, human-propelled climate crisis is needed.

Studio Other Spaces (SOS), represented by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann, is collaborating especially for this occasion with Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Hadeel Ibrahim, activist; Caroline A. Jones, professor of art history at MIT; Mariana Mazzucato, professor and founding director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London; Kumi Naidoo, ambassador for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity; and Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders and adjunct professor of climate justice at Trinity College, Dublin. Future Assembly is structured around reciprocity, collaboration and coexistence. This extends to our design approach: Imagining possible futures requires us to stretch our definitions of co-existence and collaboration to include the more-than-human and to find novel ways of spatially representing diverse nonhuman agencies so they may take a seat at the table.

‘Fog doughnut’, 2004, located in a field of olive trees on the Tiscali Campus in Cagliari, Sardinia.

‘Model of invisible futures’, 2021, part of the larger installation ‘The living observatory’, now open at The Art Space 193, a new cultural space in Daejeon, Korea. Photo: kdkkdk atelier

‘The living observatory’ is a multipart work of art that renders the viewer’s perspective both explicit and complicit through each element. It comprises six interrelated interventions, leading the viewer on a tour of forms, techniques, and concepts that Olafur Eliasson has continually explored throughout his practice. For Eliasson, the artworks are co-produced by the viewer’s physical experience of them.

The space is divided into four regions of four different colours – black (north), cyan (east), yellow (south), and magenta (west). These are the primary colours of the subtractive colour model, which is used in colour printing and analogue photography. Within these colour fields, the six interventions present geometrical pavilions, passageways, and tunnels for visitors to walk through. They centre around optical illusions, such as trompe l’oeil and anamorphosis, as well as an array of geometrical forms that refer to one another. Often shapes are first glimpsed at a distance as a spectral illusion, then re-emerge physically in the next space at a different scale: the visitor steps into the illusions to explore them from the inside. One intervention leads to the next, with recurring materials and motifs creating a spatial narrative and driving visitors ever further through the artwork.

Along the way, the interventions repeatedly direct the gaze outwards, breaking the barrier to the world outside by borrowing views from the surrounding landscape – in mirror reflections, kaleidoscopic views, or the inverted image of a camera obscura. Similarly, from outside, the artwork makes its mark in the cityscape: the four colour fields are visible through the illuminated windows, transforming the building into a landmark from afar – a lighthouse for navigating Daejon.

‘A tree on the moon at night’, 2020. Photo: Jens Ziehe

‘Rainbow ellipse progression’, 2020. Photo: Matthias Kolb

‘The weather project’, 2003, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London (The Unilever Series). Photo: Ari Magg

‘Solutions to climate change require long-term decisions, long-term investment, long-term planning. We need to see accountability by politicians, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years into the future, long after the politician's dead and gone. We get a lot of science ... but it's fair to say that it's often very disembodied. It is knowledge that doesn't have a physical sort of storage; there's no memory of it in our bodies... One of the things that art can do – and it's not the only thing – is it can sort of bring a physical narrative to something that one knows. I think we have a better ability to translate our critical enquiry into action once we have a physical relationship with the world. Bringing an experiential narrative to knowledge ... gives you a certain empowerment. We have a situation now where the whole planet has become conscious about climate change. I think we see a trend how to translate our climate knowledge into climate actions. I hope it's the beginning we are seeing, and not the peak.’ – Olafur Eliasson in the CNN article ‘Olafur Eliasson on what art can do to fight climate change’, 2019

‘The glacier melt series 1999/2019' (detail), 2019, installed at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2020. Photo: Erika Ede. Visit this link to find out more about the artwork and its research context.

We at the studio read this week’s IPCC report, which outlines updated research on carbon emissions and the global climate change trajectory, with sadness and dismay. It notes ‘many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia. … This includes changes to global sea levels, oceans and ice sheets’. Sea levels are ‘committed to rise’ due to continuing ocean heating and the melting of ice sheets and ‘will remain elevated for thousands of years’.

When Olafur Eliasson undertook ‘The glacier melt series’ in 2019 – a continuation of ‘The glacier series’ from 1999 – we reflected a lot on the IPCC’s research then, and its ramifications for the Earth’s future and our place in it.

‘I expected the glaciers to have changed (with in the last twenty years), but I simply could not imagine the extent of change. All have shrunk considerably and some are even difficult to find again. Clearly this should not be the case, since glacial ice does not melt and reform each year, like sea ice. Once a glacier melts, it is gone. Forever. It was only in seeing the difference between then and now – a mere twenty years later – that I came to fully understand what is happening. The photos make the consequences of human actions on the environment vividly real. They make the consequences felt. … Every glacier lost reflects our inaction. Every glacier saved will be a testament to the action taken in the face of the climate emergency.’ – Olafur Eliasson

Visit this link to see ‘The glacier melt series 1999/2019’ in detail and watch Eliasson in conversation with Katherine Richardson, professor of biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre, about systemic change and social tipping points.

‘Human time is movement (spring)’, 2019, viewed through ‘Human time is movement (summer)’, 2019. Eliasson's ‘Human time is movement’ works are on view at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto, Portugal, through October. Photo: Filipe Braga.

‘Tomorrow flare’, 2021. Photo: Jens Ziehe

‘Sometimes an underground movement is an illuminated bridge’, 2020, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA

‘Sometimes an underground movement is an illuminated bridge’, 2020, is a site-specific artwork installed in the tunnel linking the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building and the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The work comprises twenty angular light sculptures suspended along the length of the tunnel. Each sculpture contains three monofrequency lamps within a black, bipyramidal steel framework. The lamps infuse the space with a narrow-wavelength of yellow light that reduces the viewers’ spectral range to shades of yellow and grey. By limiting the perceivable color spectrum to a single monochrome hue, the artwork heightens visitors’ awareness, endowing them with a sense of hyper-detailed vision.

Skylights at two points along the tunnel allow natural sunlight to enter the space through panes of purple glass that filter the light and contrast sharply with the yellow lighting. The effect of this intervention changes constantly, as the brightness and quality of the sunlight fluctuate according to weather, season, and time of day. Upon leaving the space, viewers perceive the world in bluish shades – an automatic reaction of the eye to the intense optical stimulation of the yellow environment.

The artwork is an investigation into our perception of colour as a construct, inviting visitors to recognise what happens when the full spectrum of colour is removed.

A night view of ‘Life’ at Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photo: Pati Grabowicz

‘Start with the plants, follow their inquisitive growth, their running roots and rhizhomes, the widespread movements of their pollen and seeds, and an entire ecology of beings and becomings and comings undone will soon become perceptible. Get caught up in the involutionary momentum that propels these beings to get entangled in one another’s lives and you will soon start to perceive affective ecologies taking shape among the thicket of relations all around you.’ – Natasha Myers, anthropologist, from her essay ‘How to Grow Livable Worlds: Ten Not-so-easy Steps’

This text and more can be found on the dedicated website for Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition ‘Life’ at Fondation Beyeler in Basel: https://life.fondationbeyeler.ch/en/

For the many people who are unable to travel to Fondation Beyeler in Basel to see Olafur Eliasson's solo exhibition ‘Life’ in person, the studio has created a special microsite for the project, designed by Henne / Ordnung and full of lush imagery juxtaposed with a diversity of texts and perspectives. We encourage online wanderers to explore the site: https://life.fondationbeyeler.ch/en/