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date: 06 December 2022

Eliasson, Olafúrfree

(b Copenhagen Feb 5, 1967).

Eliasson, Olafúrfree

(b Copenhagen Feb 5, 1967).
  • Gertrud Sandqvist

Icelandic installation artist and photographer, active in Denmark. Olafúr Eliasson was one of the main exponents of the questioning and expansion of the traditional role of the artist in the 1990s. In all of his work and from 1995 through the establishment of Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, he challenged the idea of the autonomous artist and the autonomy of art.

Eliasson was born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, and he grew up and worked in Denmark. In 2003 he represented Denmark at the 50th Venice Biennale. Icelandic nature is present in several artworks, primarily in his photographic series (from 1996) but also in several installations in which he literally transported elements from Iceland to museums and galleries, such as in Riverbed (2014–2015) at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk.

Eliasson rejected any romantic conceptualization of his art and that of his collaborators. However, he played on the public’s expectations of nature as a representative of authenticity, for example in The Weather Project at the Tate Modern, London, in 2004, in which he presented a “sun,” or in several installations in which he presented “the moon,” culminating in the project with Ai Weiwei at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin in 2013. Another project that played on the ambivalence between nature and human creation is The New York City Waterfalls, a public site-specific installation with an artificial waterfall in New York Harbor in 2008.

From 1996 Eliasson collaborated with architect and geometrist Einar Thorsteinn (1942–2015), who was a friend of R. Buckminster Fuller. Together with Thorsteinn and architect Sebastian Behmann (b 1969), he designed Kirk Kapital’s headquarters in Vejle Fjord in Denmark. He has also collaborated with instrument makers and authors and, while teaching at the Berlin University of the Arts (2009–2014), he turned his studio into a school, the Institut für Raumexperimente IREX (Institute for Spatial Experiments). Eliasson also designed the facade of the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall with architect Henning Larsen in 2011.

As a generalist who uses the freedom (or ambiguity) of the role of the artist to test its possibilities, with a growing commitment to social and environmental issues, Eliasson expanded the role of the artist to include not only architecture but also research and entrepreneurship. In 2012 he founded the company Little Sun, which provides affordable energy to communities without electricity and sells solar-powered lamps.

In this expanded form, Eliasson explored what representation means for a contemporary artist. This includes countless optical experiments (such as the series Colour Experiment Paintings, which began in 2009) in which he emphasized that the observer’s experience takes place through active participation by adding “Your” before the title. One example is Your Rainbow Panorama (2007), a permanent installation at the ARoS Art Museum in Århus. In another project, Green River (1998–2001), he, unannounced, poured harmless Uranine powder, which turns a bright fluorescent green in water, into different waterways in Berlin, Bremen, Moss, Stockholm, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, with the idea that people would see it as an event rather than an artwork with a creator. Here, we see the influence of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of two philosophers to whom Eliasson refers (the other is Henri Bergson).

Eliasson’s work is represented in collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Center for International Light, Unna.

In 2019 Eliasson was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Programme.


  • Erosion: A Project for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. Cape Town and Johannesburg: Stevenson, 1997.


  • Brown, Katrina, ed. Olafur Eliasson: Your Position Surrounded and Your Surroundings Positioned. Dundee: Dundee Contemporary Arts, 1999. Exhibition catalog.
  • Weibel, Peter, ed. Olafur Eliasson: Surroundings Surrounded: Essays on Space and Science. Graz, Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Johanneum; Karlsruhe, ZKM Center for Art and Media; Cambridge MA and London: The MIT Press. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Surroundings, Graz, Neue Gal., 2001.
  • Birnbaum, Daniel, Grynsztejn, Madeleine, and Speaks, Michael, eds. Olafur Eliasson. London: Phaidon Press limited, 2002.
  • Scherf, Angeline, ed. Chaque matin je me sens différent, chaque soir je me sens le même. Paris: Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris, 2002. Exhibition catalog.
  • Olafur Eliasson: The Blind Pavillion, 50th Venice Biennale 2003, Danish Pavilion. Concept by Olafur Eliasson, cyan, Caroline Eggel, Sven Åge Madsen, Gitte Ørskou.
  • May, Susan, ed. Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project. London: Tate Publishing, 2003.
  • Eggel, Caroline and others, eds. Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007: Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen. London: Serpentine Gallery; Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2007.
  • Gaskins, Matthew, ed. Olafur Eliasson & Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Conversation Series, vol. 13. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2008.
  • Nipper, Marie and others, eds. Olafur Eliasson: Your Rainbow Panorama. Aarhus: ARoS, 2011.