Olafur Eliasson talks space and perception in his new Florence exhibition

By Hili Perlson

Vogue Scandinavia sits down with Icelandic-Danish artist at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi

Olafur Eliasson has been planning his largest exhibition in Italy, Nel tuo tempo (In your time), at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, for nearly seven years. Featuring a host of new and older works, the exhibition interacts with – and subverts the perception of – the museum’s Renaissance architecture. With artworks that are often made with little more than light and mirrors, the Icelandic-Danish artist stages the impressive galleries in ways that highlight the viewer’s own point of view and corporality.

A site-specific installation titled Under the weather (2022) suspends at eight meters above the museum’s freely accessible courtyard, luring viewers in with its dazzling moiré effect. We spoke to Eliasson ahead of his opening to find out how has his own perception evolved over the last two decades of art making.

We live in a post-truth era in which our shared experience draws on very few common points of reference. We can’t even agree on facts. How do you approach a practice that brings into focus the distinction between reality, perception, and depiction today?

I think an experience is not something that just happens to us, it’s something we choose to do, and choosing has to do with being convinced that you – and the way you see the world – are influenced by your circumstances. We are never really objective. Whether or not we accept it, we are always influenced by our own history or legacy and the local circumstances in which we live.

There's not a lot of solid, massive works in the show. There’s often nothing but ephemera: water, temperature and lights. You might even walk into a gallery and say: ‘Where is the artwork?’ Well, maybe the artwork is the quality of your experience. This exhibition welcomes the differences in experiencing. People might actually stand next to each other and have a very different experience of the very same situation, and I think it’s an opportunity to exercise the idea that we can share a space without having to agree.

Have you ever questioned the validity of your own experience?

Through the areas of identity politics and decolonization I have come to understand that I am blind too. These are not topics that are at the heart of my artistic practice, but they are very much part of how I’ve been able to reconsider the validity of my own privilege.

When I talk about this principle of plural perspective, I think it starts with accepting the fact that we’re often blinded by our own privilege. I'm a white, middle-aged, Western European male who goes by the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’, and when I speak, I accept the fact that I might not speak for everyone. I also accept that when I talk about plural perspective, I speak from that very position and some people might not feel seen by my exhibition, and I must incorporate that into my future ways of working.

You‘ve been highlighting environmental issues in your work for years. Seeing where we are now in terms of climate calamity, what impact do you think art can have, if any?

As an artist, I have two roles. One as a participant in civic society like everyone else, and I have the same responsibility as everyone else to live by my values to the best of my efforts. Besides that, I also have a responsibility as a public figure – I bring the issues that I believe are important into my artistic practice.

For some time now, I have been gathering the carbon footprint of my own exhibitions, displayed on my homepage... Today, we have awareness. Now we need to go from awareness into action.

We‘re all going to be affected by an energy crisis this winter. Can your “Little Sun” device help?

When the sun shines, it basically rains energy from the sky. It's only a question of harvesting that energy. As for Little Sun, it’s a handheld power station which gives you just enough light to cook a meal or to read a book. You could say it’s the most intimate use of light.

Considering the energy prices going up, you might actually take advantage of the Little Sun, just like more than one and a half million families in East Africa are doing, and enjoy the luxury of harvesting a few hours of sun in the day in order to have a few hours to read at night.

Olafur Eliasson, Nel tuo tempo (In your time), Palazzo Strozzi, Florence from 22.9.2022–22.01.2023