As the crowd shuffled and muttered in anticipation for the evening’s speaker to arrive, it became clear that all the big hitters had made an appearance. BBC arts editor Will Gompertz tittered to his companion as Tim Marlow held the door open for the star of the show, Olafur Eliasson.
Eliasson is undefinable and infectious, veering off topic constantly throughout his hour conversation with Marlow as his mind races from project to project. That’s why this unique Danish/Icelandic artist has been recently named an Honorary RA without a restrictive specialty. Oh no, Eliasson is firmly a Renaissance man.
Marlow kicks off the evening by reminding Eliasson his 50th birthday is approaching. But even knocking on the door of middle-age Eliasson already has multiple successful careers under his belt including artist, architect and even superstar breakdancer. As a teenager growing up in rural Denmark, and his summers spent in Iceland to give his young parents a break, Eliasson discovered dance and for the first time, the fantastic power of the body. Eliasson confesses he was a pretty weird kid that used to do the robot all the time, but his parents never squashed his creative drive. All of Eliasson’s work harnesses that visceral experience of the body in movement and is probably the only defining element that unites his disparate oeuvre, from the monumental sun at the Tate Modern in 2004 and riverbed landscapes at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2014 to solar panels that are tackling the energy giants head on.
“Culture can change the world” Eliasson boldly informs us. And listening to Eliasson speak so passionately about the power of the public sector, I can’t help but get behind him. For Eliasson it is constantly a question of the collective and what ‘we’ as producers and consumers can achieve. Back in the Turbine Hall, which Eliasson confessed he had no idea if it would be successful until it was up and running on the South Bank, it was the audience that made the sun-drenched Tate Modern come to life.
For this reason Eliasson’s work jars with the private, commercial world, where wealthy collectors stream inside art fair tents and auctions to snap up the most prized items on the market. “Of course I do want a slice of that too!” Eliasson laughs. While Eliasson certainly isn’t turning his nose up at commercial success, he is far more interested in making art for those that didn’t make it to Frieze rather than pandering to those that did.
Everything but the kitchen sink comes up in conversation as Marlow struggles to maintain a rhythm to the proceedings. Eliasson even wades into the Brexit debate arguing, “of course we are all European, is there an even a question to ask?” Eliasson spends most of his time in Berlin where his enormous collaborative studio and teaching programme was, having arrived in 1989 at the defining moment the wall came down and culture changed forever.
Even with so many plates spinning in the air, Eliasson is meek and humble. He laughs that he tried to buy a ticket before the talk from someone by the entrance for a keepsake and no one recognised him. While he has also famously said that he is not in the business of building monuments, his mantra is all about a legacy for the future – whether he is the star of that or not.
Next up on the path to world domination is Eliasson’s Versailles project this summer, following that controversial installation by Anish Kapoor in 2015. (On display from 5th June 2016)