The model of a modern artist

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One of the more vigorous exponent’s of commerce’s payback to culture is Bernard Arnault, chief executive of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the globalised French group whose products run from handbags to anti-wrinkle cream.

This autumn LVMH announced a €100m museum and art foundation in the Bois de Boulogne, designed by architect Frank Gehry, and among Arnault’s expensive commissioned art works for the re-opening last year of his refurbished Champs Elysées store was a pitch-black lift-journey to the top floor from the Danish conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson.

Now Arnault has financed a new Eliasson installation, Eye See You, in a limited edition of 360. It will be presented this Christmas in a globalised simultaneous exhibition, displayed in the window of every one of his shops around the world. In true Scandinavian style, it will be sent out to LVMH branches as flat-packs for local assembly.

Olafur Eliasson is the very model of a modern major artist. Born 39 years ago in Denmark, but of Icelandic origin, he runs a spacious, busy studio complex in Berlin, commands several languages and a global range of patronage.

Although best known in Britain for his immensely popular piece The Weather Project made three years ago at Tate Modern, his art-projects – a term he prefers to “works” – have been mounted all over Europe, in the Far East and the Americas.

The huge disc of yellow light Eliasson set up to rival the sun in the Turbine Hall fascinated Londoners in 2003.

The light was not, however, some unearthly creation of spectral alchemy but urban and familiar, generated by the low-sodium monochromatic tubelight familiar from highway lighting all over the world.

The artist was delighted with the way the London public appropriated the Tate installation, treating it as both an interior sensual experience, and a new kind of gathering place, like a beach.

“The response in a way was very unexpected but I was pleased by it,” he told me when we met at his studio. “The special thing about working with light is that it is not material. It illuminates something else rather than showing itself. So it brings you the viewer into the centre. You are the sculpture.”

So, at Tate, the people became the exhibition while the light was what he calls – a little obscurely – the “stating” part of the concept, in other words the enabler, that which “helps you to state yourself”. Another quality of that particular light was its “mono-frequency”, by which it transforms all colours outside the yellow part of the spectrum into grey.

This same light reappears in a rather more concentrated form in Eye See You. The installation is a representation in metal and glass of an outsize human eyeball, where the white of the eye is a circle of interleaved polished steel plates, overlapping like a camera’s aperture control.

In contrast with an eyeball, it forms a concave dish that focuses the light from a sodium lamp shining out of its centre, like a glowing yellow iris, and, at the centre of this floats the pupil, created optically by placing a purple glass screen in front of the lamp in such a way as to cancel the light coming from the centre of the lamp, thus creating a small black hole. Here viewers can see their own illuminated reflection, as one can in a real eyeball. It is a clever variation of the old debate about whether art is a mirror or a lamp: in this case it is both.

LVMH has also commissioned a single complementary work for its 5th Avenue store in New York, conversely called You See Me. It consists of several Eye See You lamps hanging in a clustered sphere so that “the lamps will be shooting yellow light in all directions and colouring different areas of the shop grey”.

I suggested to the artist that this might be interpreted as a negative comment on the kind of glittering brand-ramping on which Vuitton bases its profits and, while Eliasson seems to agree, he understandably plays down any overt criticism of globalised marketing. Some people, he says, might not recognise You See Me as a work of art at all, and see only a complicated spotlight.

“I like this uncertainty,” he says. “Everything else in the shop is all about certainty, so it does no harm to introduce this element of uncertainty. But it’s not aggressive. A lot of people might not notice it at all.”

Modesty and simplicity are features of Eliasson’s work, as of his personality. What could be simpler than an artificial sun in whose rays people are delighted to come and bask, a river dyed green, a tower of shadows – all recent Eliasson projects? He does not however reject science and technology and his studio – tucked appropriately away beside Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof modern art museum – is an inter-active and collaborative place with something of the atmosphere of a light-industrial unit in Telford.

On the ground floor are a suite of offices, and a wide space incorporating a faintly bohemian kitchen area and a refectory table for eating. At various times Eliasson has employed up to 30 collaborators – among them architects, engineers, model-makers, circuit-board surfers, mathematicians – and he proudly gave me a tour of the various experiments and works on test or under construction. One of these is a room in which the overhead light is arranged so as to cast no shadow. Eliasson is fascinated by shadow.

“In northern Europe your shadow cast by the sun is for most of the year at least as long as your own body – the sun never gets high enough to make it shorter; in Italy all year the shadow is less than one-third of your height, which is why there are so few shadows in Italian art – look at Canaletto. In Scandinavians like Munch, everything is about the body and shadow.”

The same factor, he believes, influences the choice of artificial light in different cultures. In the north, with our bluer and harder natural sunlight, we prefer our interiors to have soft, yellow lighting. Not so in the south, where tourists are often disconcerted by the harsh day-glo tube-lighting people prefer in their restaurants and will even tolerate at home.

Further south, in Africa, is another centre of interest for Eliasson, but this is not an art project. To help Ethiopian children he and his wife Marianne Krogh Jensen have set up what they call a “micro-charity”, 121Ethiopia, and it is to this that he will devote the profits from LVMH’s two commissions.

He argues that more people can and should set up similarly small, locally focused charities in the developing world. “We are only five people and we set aside a two or three hours a week to work on it. Things are very simple. We put in 2–5 per cent of whatever money we earn, and with that we’ve renovated a few schools and now we’re doing an orphanage. We will renovate and then leave. We want to make these into self-sustaining places.”

Eliasson finds much satisfaction in the work. “We know the children, we know the construction workers on the site. So it’s really one-to-one. We collect money with a handshake here, and give it with a handshake there.”

There is pleasing sense that Eliasson’s world is rational and tightly integrated. His involvement with globalised business enables him to finance and publicise small-scale charity work. His “simple” installations create complex and unexpected responses. He genially shakes hands with the richest and the poorest. And his lamps are also mirrors.

www.121ethiopia.org

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