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Design Indaba 2017

Olafur Eliasson And The Empathy-Driven Creativity

Olafur Eliasson creates art which acts as a mirror: pieces which force you to acknowledge your own presence, your role in shaping the experience of the artwork, and hence, your own thoughts. Eliasson’s work, such as the dazzling sun of ‘The Weather Project’ in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and the high hovering ‘Waterfall’ at the Palace of Versailles, brings the viewer into the present by providing them with scale and wonder in which to lose themselves.

Speaking at this year’s Design Indaba, Eliasson spoke about that feeling you have when you notice something in a novel or look more deeply at a sculpture and think “‘that’s me – that’s exactly how I’m feeling’. It’s a type of reflection where you are being emotionally met…[it’s] actually listening to you, giving shape to not yet structured emotions.”

This kind of emotional understanding is what Elisson argues is why more attention must be put to the cultural sector – this “extra asset” we are not very good at trading in on.

Launching his new product– the solar-powered LED lamp, “Little Sun Diamond” – at the festival, Eliasson spoke about how products, experiences and services must be designed with emotion in mind.

“What people want is more important than what we tell people they want”, he said. He cites users of his of his solar light in rural Africa, who want light to have their friends over for drinks, as opposed to reading. He has created a social product, not a light source.

“When we are listened to, we are much less likely to feel marginalised; we feel interconnected, we are less likely to radicalise.” The sense of “we-ness” that the cultural sector encourages can create environments in which revolutionary solutions can be made.

Eliasson’s Little Sun products, which launched at the Tate Modern in 2012, have been sold all over the world – and with 260,000 solar lamps being used in Europe alone, petroleum-use has been curbed and less CO2 has been pumped into our atmosphere. Huge economic and environmental effects have been the result of an art project focussing on the emotional and societal needs as opposed to just the functional.

What interests Eliasson most is the idea that design and aspiration can carry something more than most expect. When you bring different people together to solve problems through art, the sometimes-harmful connotations of engineering, politics and business are removed.  Speaking about how his studio came together to create the product, he said: “What makes the social glue [is] ‘we’re working on an art project’, but it’s just perception – a common belief that art has this non-pragmatic higher relevance.”

Eliasson ended by bringing the audience members together, handing out and illuminating the room with his Little Suns. Maybe by breaking down barriers between the conference attendees and indulging them in art for just a few moments, some of the next world-changing discussions and ideas have already begun.

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