Olafur Eliasson

“The work represents a decision to play a role in forging a tomorrow that is better than yesterday”

Inside the office entrance of the main tower in Azabudai Hills’s A District is a permanently installed artwork by Olafur Eliasson, a globally renowned artist whose work reflects his deep interest in climate change. We talk to Eliasson about the meaning behind his latest work and his thoughts on the purpose of public art.

interview & photo by Corey Fuller
text by Mari Matsubara
Translation by Soli Consultants, Inc.
Editorial Cooperation by Yoshiko Kogi
illustration by Geoff McFetridge

Azabudai Hills Artist Introduction|Olafur Eliasson

——Many of your works to date have incorporated natural phenomena related to light, wind, and water. What inspired you in this direction?

Eliasson When I was born, my parents were very young, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Iceland. Eventually, I moved to Denmark to live with my mother as I started school; I spent my summers in Iceland where my father moved back. The sun doesn’t set in Iceland during the summer, so the nights are bright. I remember sleeping very little and spending a lot of time outdoors.

The act of looking as a work of art

One of my most vivid memories is from the early 1970s during the oil crisis. One night while I was in Iceland, sirens began blaring. My grandparents had a house on top of a hill, so when I looked outside, I could see that all the lights in town had gone out. But the sight was magnificent. It was a white night, typical of summers in the high latitudes, so it wasn’t completely dark, but the entire town was shrouded in this blue light—an effect produced by sunlight pouring into town from behind a glacier far beyond the window I was looking out. At the time, this glacier was about a kilometer deep, so only blue light passed through it, and it lit the town like a nimbus. It was truly breathtaking. While I was entranced by this sight, my grandmother was lighting candles on the tabletop. We sat around the table playing games in the warm light of these candles, while my grandmother did her knitting. The blue light outside was a complete contrast to the warm glow of the candles. That night, I learned what an oil crisis was, though from a childlike perspective.

As I grew older, I began to better understand the nature of an oil crisis—that it was an artistic, political, and economic problem. People generally think of Iceland as a country full of beautiful nature, but that nature does not exist in isolation. It is composed of many other things to which it is connected. I am always interested in natural phenomena, not in and of themselves but in connection to other things. It is this interest that has led me to incorporate natural phenomena in my work.

——Some of your works have involved removing something from nature and displaying it as art in museums, galleries, and public spaces. For example, you once placed a block of ice in the middle of the road in Copenhagen, Paris, and London. What is the meaning behind this approach?

Eliasson When people see a rainbow, they become happy. But like mists, temperatures, and sunlight, a rainbow is an ephemeral thing that constantly changes before disappearing without warning. And we can never touch it. The symmetry in a rainbow—the aspect that we find beautiful—is immaterial, suggesting that our way of looking at the rainbow is as important as the rainbow itself. This is why I often say that the act of looking itself may be a work of art.

These natural phenomena occur outdoors, but I bring them inside, using a variety of methods such as reflecting light off of rotating plates or water to replicate them. I try to activate the senses so the works captivate their audiences. Those who look at my work may begin to notice their senses becoming a part of the work and become aware of themselves as witnesses to natural phenomena. Eventually, they may see something new in the work. They may reconsider the ways in which they have defined reality. They may even begin to understand that reality is relative to the things one interacts with. All things are constantly transforming, moving, and fluid. This is always the central idea in my work.

Even inside our own bodies, new cells are constantly being reproduced. The person you were yesterday is not the same as the person you are today. So, then, who is the person you are today? It’s an interesting question. In recent years, it has become trendy in the art world to use the word “timeless” as an expression of admiration, but I find the concept terrifying. If something does manage to exist beyond its time, it would mean we are all dead. There is no past, only present. Even memories only exist in the present. What I love about natural phenomena is that they only exist in the moment you are observing them.

A composite of elements that change from moment to moment

Olafur Eliasson A harmonious cycle of interconnected nows (image) 2023 Recycled Zinc alloy, steel cables © 2023 Olafur Eliasson

——Please tell us about the work you have installed in Azabudai Hills.

Eliasson First, I thought about where to place the work. The main tower lobby is a cavernous space with a high ceiling that many people will pass through as they go to and from their offices. Windows frame the nature outside, the passing of seasons, and the changes in the light. In other words, it is a very transient space. This is where I decided to hang my sculpture in midair. It is composed of metallic pieces, some parts glossy and some parts matte, which reflect light in a way that, depending on where you are, makes the object appear like a circle or sphere or like a flat surface. These shapes represent mathematical orbits that obey a certain rule. They may make you think of the orbit of the satellite transmitting data to your phone when you are using it.

As you walk around the lobby and your perspective changes, the work will appear to you in many different shapes. However, each one of these shapes is equally important. You could say the work is a composite of countless elements that transform from moment to moment.

About 85% of the materials are made of zinc. Zinc particles exist in the smog emitted by our chimneys, so you could say that the work is composed of materials removed from or recycled from the air we breathe every day. Familiar substances and materials have been gathered, poured into molds, and attached together into the form of a sculpture.

Olafur Eliasson A harmonious cycle of interconnected nows (detail) 2023 Recycled Zinc alloy, steel cables © 2023 Olafur Eliasson

While we often talk about the air pollution and photochemical smog in our cities, we tend to think of these as invisible problems. That is why it is important to be inquisitive and keenly observant. If something doesn’t feel quite right, you need to be able to comprehend that it is a problem related to the way we have chosen to live.

We are capable of change. We must stop pumping smog out the chimneys of our factories and remove the metals in the smog so we can repurpose them. Now that climate change is a reality, we must rethink everything. This sculpture will provide people with an opportunity to rethink the way they want to live. Of course, some may choose not to take this opportunity. After all, the work is not there to teach you how to live; it is only there to speak to you.

A commitment to help forge a better tomorrow

Olafur Eliasson A harmonious cycle of interconnected nows (image, detial) 2023 Recycled Zinc alloy, steel cables © 2023 Olafur Eliasson

——What is the artist’s role in society?

Eliasson I am an ordinary human being, just like everyone else, but at the same time I am also an artist. I am able to say a lot of crazy things that ordinary people can’t. Like, “I can hear the trees talking.” “No you can’t,” you might immediately say. But many cultures recognize that trees are able to communicate with each other. This is not that strange of an idea in Japan, with its history of Zen Buddhism. The artist’s role is to direct people’s attention to ideas that have been cut off from the market economy and public sector and to reignite interest in things that have been forgotten by society.

I am always learning from the various sectors of society, from indigenous people to scientists. I have the ability to collate what I have learned into a single location and present it to the world as an artistic statement. Using my position as an artist, I can bring together people from disparate fields who would otherwise never get to meet. I do not claim absolute originality in the artwork that arises from this process. Rather than argue over who the work actually belongs to, I find it is more important to sit together with everyone and have a high-quality conversation.

——Finally, what purpose is there in placing art in public spaces where people can encounter it on a daily basis?

Eliasson The office entrance where my work is being displayed is like a transient space located between the public realm and the private realm. It is like a buffer, a kind of space that has qualities that you might call ceremonial or festive. It is a place where companies are able to welcome their customers with dignity; but it also needs to be a place that allows those who visit to feel comfortable. All spaces are imbued with purpose, which is something I must consider when I place a work of art inside it. This is an ongoing project for Mori Building, which has greatly contributed to art over the course of many years and has told many stories through these contributions. I am both honored and grateful to have been given this opportunity to tell another story through my work. When you stop inside this lobby, your eyes will detect something, and the next time, they might detect something else. To give your eyes something new to see each time, I have imbued every detail of the work with the finest quality.

The work represents a type of commitment, a decision to play a role in forging a tomorrow that is better than yesterday. To effectively convey this idea, I felt the work needed to be displayed in either a public space or a transient space located between the public and the private realms.


Olafur Eliasson
Born in 1967, artist Olafur Eliasson grew up in Iceland and Denmark. In 1995, he moved to Berlin and founded Studio Olafur Eliasson, which today comprises a large team of craftsmen, architects, archivists, researchers, administrators, cooks, programmers, art historians, and specialised technicians. 2014, Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann formed the office for art and architecture Studio Other Spaces to focus on interdisciplinary and experimental building projects and works in public space www.studiootherspaces.net. In 2019 Eliasson was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Programme. Eliasson lives and works in Copenhagen and Berlin. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe, 2016 © 2016 Olafur Eliasson