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Olafur Eliasson: the glasses that taught me to see

Olafur Eliasson: the glasses that taught me to see

The artist on his most prized possessions, from a compass to a lump of obsidian

The artist on his most prized possessions, from a compass to a lump of obsidian

Olafur Eliasson | July 16th 2019

A postcard of “Monogram” by Robert Rauschenberg
My father was an artist, as well as a cook on a boat, and I spent a lot of time in his studio as a child. He had a postcard of Robert Rauschenberg’s artwork “Monogram” (1955-59), which features a goat with a tyre around it, hanging on the refrigerator. I remember asking myself what the artist was thinking when he made it. I think my father’s explanation had to do with nature and culture and ecology. I only saw the work in person many years later, in the 1990s, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. But even seen on a postcard it made a huge impression on me as a child. I think it was my introduction to the freedom and potential of art, to the idea that art can basically be anything.

 

Linoleum floor
I began breakdancing as a teenager and pursued it relatively obsessively until I went to art school and began focusing on other things. An important accessory for breakdancing was a piece of linoleum flooring that we would carry with us and dance on in public space. I was introduced to breakdancing by the brother of a friend of mine, who had just come back from America. This was in the early 1980s, and it was perhaps not the best thing for my academic performance at school. There was a group of us and we took part in competitions, eventually becoming Scandinavian champions. We even had matching costumes that my mother made for us. 

Breakdancing gave me an awareness of my body that has accompanied me throughout my artistic development. It taught me how to create and affect the space around me with my body. In breakdancing you see that you can touch the world and change it. This is a theme that I constantly have in mind when I am working.

 

Compass
This antique compass was given to me as a present. It’s from around 1900 and was made by Negretti and Zambra, a company in London which produced scientific instruments for the Royal Observatory and British Navy. I have collected a number of compasses over the years, but this one I’ve actually used, carrying it with me all over the world. Whenever I get an opportunity I like to go hiking in the Icelandic highlands or elsewhere, and a compass can come in handy – especially when you don’t have mobile reception.

I’ve been interested in navigational devices and compasses for many years and have been making simple compasses as artworks for about a decade. These artworks are generally hung from the ceiling and include a type of needle that can be made out of a range of materials – I often use driftwood collected from the shores of Iceland – and a magnet on it to orient it according to the Earth’s magnetic field. It interests me that no matter where you are in the world, all of these compasses are in alignment, all of them point in the same direction, indicating a force that is outside of us, and this somehow connects all the viewers of these compasses to one another at that moment.

 

“Little Sun”
I designed the Little Sun solar lamp with a friend of mine, the solar engineer Frederik Ottesen. We had both traveled quite a bit in Africa and were aware that it is difficult for many people there who are struggling financially to gain access to electrical lighting. Families spend a lot of money on kerosene for lanterns and improvised lighting, which can be incredibly unhealthy and even dangerous. We decided to make this solar lamp that could be sold for an affordable price in areas of the world without electricity.

We felt that it was important to appeal to people on the level of design as well as practicality. So many solar lamps that were already available looked pragmatic, but people everywhere want something that appeals to them visually. We based the design on a sunflower or a sun with the intention of reaching children, since they especially need lighting for their homework in the evenings, and they are more receptive to new technology, bringing it home with them and introducing it to their parents. We launched the Little Sun project at Tate Modern on the occasion of the 2012 Olympics in London.

 

Obsidian
Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass. I first encountered it in nature in Iceland, in the obsidian fields of Hrafntinnusker, near the volcano Hekla, but you can find it all over the world where there has been volcanic activity. The reflections in obsidian are remarkable because the black glass negates colour and just shows contrast. That’s why 18th-century landscape painters carried black mirrors, called Claude glasses, on their walks in the countryside: the mirrors helped them identify perfect compositions by reducing scenery into simple shapes, uncomplicated by colour. I’ve used black glass and obsidian in a number of artworks. For me, they carry a metaphorical idea about our ability to reflect upon ourselves within a larger context.

 

My glasses
I have several pairs of glasses but I particularly like this pair, made by MYKITA, a company in Berlin. The design is very straightforward and detail oriented, and I like that they manufacture and design all their glasses in-house in an old industrial building in Kreuzberg. I’ve worn glasses since I was a child, when my football coach realized there was something wrong with my vision and suggested I get my eyes checked. He was right – I was extremely far-sighted – although my vision wasn’t the only problem, and I got kicked off the team after three months. Wearing glasses made me aware of how subjective our perception of the world is. When you are dependent on spectacles, it becomes obvious to you that you see the world differently from others. I also think that it fed my fascination with lenses and other optical instruments.

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life Tate Modern, until January 5th