QZ & A

The secret to creativity, according to boundary-breaking artist Olafur Eliasson

The parrot stratagem.
The parrot stratagem.
Image: Little Sun
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Artists used to portray themselves as solitary creative geniuses. Cooped up in a studio or painting alone en plein air, the lingering image of the artist is one without assistants, apprentices or collaborators.

But for Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, collaboration is daily practice, and the recipe to creativity is no secret. In Eliasson’s Berlin studio—or “the Lab,” as he likes to call it—there are some 75 craftsmen, programmers, architects, archivists, art historians and chefs. The sought-after artist also routinely collaborates with scientists, architects, musicians and product engineers—most recently for his crowd-funded design project Little Sun, which aims to provide solar-powered light to families without electricity.

Image for article titled The secret to creativity, according to boundary-breaking artist Olafur Eliasson
Image: Studio Olafur Eliasson

Of course, he’s not the first artist to operate with a big team. Andy Warhol ran the infamous Factory and Jeff Koons admits that he rarely paints anymore, often outsourcing the production of his million-dollar pieces to hired hands. But perhaps what makes 48-year old Eliasson different is that he revels in sharing everything from concept to credit.

Quartz sat down with Eliasson in New York the day after the debut of Tree of Codes, a dance performance where he shared artistic credits with a choreographer and a DJ.

Do you reject the notion of the artist as a solitary creative genius? 

I have always suggested that authorship is more complex. If a work of art trusts [its audience], it makes people into co-producers and not consumers. It’s about confidence in people and letting them co-produce culture. I’m excited when I’m not the only one involved because the success is bigger.

How do you collaborate with your large team in Berlin?

What makes art creative is really the way it touches the world. In the studio, we work in teams where we make a sketch, a model, and decisions after that. But the way I see it, the creative potential of what I do in the studio is not in the doing but the way it affects everything else.

My point is that sometimes, people think that when you’re in the artist studio, you’re disconnected from the world. In a way you are, but the success lies in the connectivity. I feel that when I’m in the studio, I can talk to the world.

You teach a subject called “Spatially-based Artistic Interventions’ in a school in Ethiopia. How does teaching there add to your practice?

I love it a lot. It’s very gratifying to experience the amazing city of Addis Ababa and being involved in a university makes me part of the system there. I’m not there to tell what good art is but to organize how to systematize and organize and discipline the work process of creativity.

In many of your public presentations, you appear introspective and serious but in Little Sun’s Kickstarter video, there’s a funny parrot on your shoulder. Was this your idea?

We live in a regime of social media where there is a democratization of knowledge, but on the other side there is a lack of emphatic communication. There’s a numbness. People are becoming numb to beautiful ideas like crowd funding, which is fundamentally beautiful.

So I thought to myself, “How can I go against that?” My immediate reaction is that I need something unpredictable and emotional.

Image for article titled The secret to creativity, according to boundary-breaking artist Olafur Eliasson
Image: © Little Sun

Whenever people are bored with what I say, they can always look at the parrot instead of closing [the browser]. We actually have a very high percentage of people seeing things till the end. It’s humorous, but I’m very interested in attention span. Art is usually very slow.

For an artist who commands top dollar in auctions, do you ever worry that dabbling in product design might compromise the value of your work? 

Image for article titled The secret to creativity, according to boundary-breaking artist Olafur Eliasson
Image: Anne Quito/Quartz

I do think about that and I think art is more robust. And I think art needs to be challenged. It can be a very luxurious bubble, especially the art world and the art market. It’s important to break out of it, and time will say whether that was right or wrong.

I think it’s incredibly important to question the condition in which we are working. I love the art world and I will continue to make art as well, but I do think that this is also a work of art [pointing to the Little Sun charger]. The success lies in the purposefulness of this.