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Olafur Eliasson

Danish-Icelandic Sculptor, Painter, Photographer, and Designer

Movement: Installation Art

Born: February 5, 1967 - Copenhagen, Denmark

Olafur Eliasson Timeline


A noted member of the Social Practice movement, Olafur Eliasson injects his work with a universal conscience that catapults art outside of its normal confines and challenges the way we inhabit the world. With each endeavor, he asks people to fully embody their human experience by expanding their feelings of self into a connection with the broader public sphere. His art is derived through a sincere practice in which he collaborates with experts in various fields to create diverse pieces intended to propose critical interventions within existing social systems, an effort that is designed to inspire debate and fresh perceptions, or to catalyze change. Eliasson has become a progressive leader in the kind of creative thinking that provokes the way people perceive culture, community, and the natural environment around them. Although his career has reached iconic status, Eliasson's core motivations set him apart from other superstars of the art world; whereas some artists of his stature are known for their superegos, altruism is the dominant trait in his reputation.

Key Ideas

Eliasson's underlying mission to make the world a better place is largely informed by work that asks viewers to think about their role in globalization and environmentalism. In doing this, he expands the historical role of Activist art with a focus less on the personal issues of our time and more on the overreaching concerns that beg current contemplation toward a more humanitarian future.
Eliasson strives to jostle the status quo by creating work that compels uncertainty, transforming the role of art beyond its simple aesthetic or experiential value and into a powerful tool for battling complacency. He has stated, "This uncertainty is important to me, as it encourages people to think and sense beyond the limits within which they are accustomed to function."
The artist's presentation of our communal experience of space, ambiguous materialization, and its constant state of flux is often derived from the juxtaposition of manmade and ephemeral elements. His interactions with natural phenomena such as light, water, air, and the environment have vastly dissolved the boundaries of what is considered traditional artistic medium.
Eliasson enforces his viewers to reconnect with the self, spurring reflection into their experiences within and relationship to the world at large. His work becomes a catalyst, which forwards the concept of individual agency.

Most Important Art

Olafur Eliasson Famous Art

Beauty (1993)

Since the beginning of his career, Eliasson has endeavored to conceive visually impactful work with sincerity rather than irony. Completed while still a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Art, Beauty consists of a single spotlight illuminating a section of perforated tubing. When water is pumped through the tube, thousands of tiny water droplets cascade out, producing a curtain of mist, which then reflects the light to produce a rainbow. The sublime work both glorifies and dissects an environmental wonder, revealing Eliasson's unique ability to poetically interpret a scientific process.

Interaction with the natural environment along with perception, movement, and personal experience has always been a driving force in Eliasson's work. In this particular work, viewers are encouraged to move around and engage with the piece. In using their bodies to control their perspective, viewers manipulate a manmade ethereal phenomenon, and become responsible for their own dialogue with the work. Eliasson aims to heighten perceptual awareness, compelling individuals to become more connected to the space around them.
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Olafur Eliasson Artworks in Focus:



Olafur Eliasson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1967, a year after his 21-year-old parents, Elías Hjörleifsson and Ingibjörg Olafsdottir, immigrated to the city from Iceland. His mother, who was from an Icelandic fishing village dating back to the 11th century, found work as a dressmaker, while his father, who was an amateur artist, found work as a cook on a fishing boat. His father's family was from Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, where they were part of a small artistic community. Eliasson's grandmother was a photographer and his grandfather, who abandoned his family when Elías was young, was a publisher of avant-garde literature. Eliasson's own parents, who were young and inexperienced, divorced when he was four. Elías, following in his own father's footsteps, moved back to Iceland, leaving a young Olafur fatherless throughout much of his childhood and adolescence. During his infrequent trips to visit his father, Eliasson began making drawings as a way to impress him. By the time he was 14 he could draw every bone in the human body, and at 15, he had his first art show - displaying several landscape paintings at an alternative art space in Denmark.

As a teenager, Eliasson displayed a natural aptitude for art, but had no real aspirations to become an artist. Instead, he spent most of his time breakdancing after discovering the dance form on an American television show. "We lived in the countryside at the time, on a little farm, and I remember that for months and months I just moved around like a robot. In the beginning I was really bad at it," recalled Eliasson. "It must've been funny to see me moving around the cows and horses... I'm sure I was the only robotic electric boogie dancer with eyeliner." After forming the "Harlem Gun Crew" with two friends, the group, dressed in silver spandex made by Eliasson's mother, would perform at clubs around Copenhagen and competed internationally, eventually winning the Scandinavian breakdancing championship twice.

Early Training

1987 would become a turning point in Eliasson's life. During the tumultuous year, his grandfather killed himself and his father was hospitalized for alcoholism, requiring Olafur to move to Iceland in order to care for his two-year-old half sister, Anna Viktoria. Out of mere boredom, Eliasson decided to apply to art school, and was duly accepted to the prestigious Royal Danish Academy of Art. "I would be lying if I said there wasn't an element of escapism in my interest in art as a teenager," he said. "Making no sense seemed more attractive to me than making sense. Applying to art school was a lovely way for me to disconnect. Once I got there, though, I realized that art is about connecting. Instead of stepping out of the world, I was stepping right into the heart of it. This was a revelation for me. I thought it was only about being a good artist so that my father would like me. But it was more about shaping the world."

This notion of art as being a crucial means for turning thinking into doing within the world would lay the foundation for Eliasson's eventual foray into Social Practice, an art medium focused on engagement through human interaction and social discourse.

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Olafur Eliasson Biography Continues

During his time at the art academy Eliasson was given a travel budget, and in 1990 he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he worked for a period as a studio assistant for the minimalist painter, Christian Eckart. During this time he also became a voracious reader and immersed himself in philosophy and scientific theories. He became especially intrigued with natural science and phenomenological philosophy, and its emphasis on an individual's experience of reality. How a person interprets reality would become a consistent niche for Eliasson's work.

Mature Period

Shortly after graduation from art school in 1995, Eliasson's ephemeral sculptures, which poignantly articulated natural phenomenon, were being exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. At the same time he was finding international success, Eliasson also reconnected with his father, who had recovered from his illness. Elías would even sometimes cook for his son's gallery openings, and this relationship continued until Elías's death in 2002 from pulmonary fibrosis.

In 1995, Eliasson established Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin with an emphasis on collaboration. Founded as a "laboratory for spatial research," it would become a space to engage with architects, engineers, craftsman, and assistants to conceive and construct large-scale projects, installations, and sculpture that embodied Eliasson's interests in perception, movement, experience, and feelings of self within both the manmade and natural worlds.

For example, in 1996 Eliasson started working with architect and geometry expert Einar Thorsteinn to create pieces such as 8900054, a 30-foot wide and seven-foot high stainless steel dome that appeared to be growing directly from the ground. The piece caused viewers to reflect upon things that are in constant development deep beneath ordinary surfaces.

In 1997 Eliasson was asked to contribute to the Danish pavilion at the São Paulo Biennial where he met Danish art historian and pavilion curator Marianne Krogh Jensen. The two connected over an altruistic desire to help those less fortunate. After marrying in 2003 they adopted two children from Ethiopia - a son in 2003 and a daughter in 2006.

Starting in the early 2000s and with the help of his innovative studio collaborators, Eliasson began thinking of his socially engaged art as a means to affect change on a global scale. From 2009 to 2014, he imparted these philosophies as a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts. In 2012, he created Little Suns, portable solar lamps, which allow impoverished communities without access to electricity, the ability to see in the dark. He also used proceeds from the sale of his art to establish, along with his wife, 121Ethiopia, a foundation that funds African orphanages.

A global artist concerned with the welfare of the world, today Eliasson travels the globe discussing how art can have a positive impact on humanity's future. And while Eliasson's art takes him all over the world, he often brings his family along in his travels, determined not to make the same mistakes his own father made with him.

In 2014, along with architect Sebastian Behmann, Eliasson established an architectural counterpoint to Studio Olafur Eliasson called Studio Other Spaces, which focuses on interdisciplinary and experimental building projects and works in public spaces.

Today, Eliasson commutes between Copenhagen, where his family resides, and his studios in Berlin. With over 80 employees, the studio now functions more like a laboratory, where experimentation and exploration into many arenas including science, architecture, geometry, space, the environment, and natural phenomena combine to inform the creation of participatory art for individuals, institutions, and communities.


In striving to make art concerned with the issues of society at large, Eliasson's artistic practice, along with fellow socially engaged artists, Ai Weiwei, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Theaster Gates, helped form the Social Practice movement. Like the earlier Relational Aesthetics artists, these works take human relations and social discourse as their starting point. Yet, unlike the slightly earlier generation, rather than produce work for art institutions, these artists aim to generate social change by means of collaboration and through the creation of participatory art outside of the gallery system.

Reimagining art's role within a global society, Eliasson utilizes his art for causes that were once the domain of activists and environmentalists. Like other Social Practice artists, Eliasson now demands that art have a social conscience. "Nowadays, art has great potential for changing the world and improving people's lives," he explains. "Partly because it can nurture a degree of trust... And it can bring about not only the potential for feeling, but also for acting."

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Olafur Eliasson
Interactive chart with Olafur Eliasson's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
James TurrellJames Turrell
Bruce NaumanBruce Nauman
Gordon Matta-ClarkGordon Matta-Clark


Hans HaackeHans Haacke
Robert IrwinRobert Irwin


Land ArtLand Art
Relational AestheticsRelational Aesthetics
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art
Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson
Years Worked: 1993 - present



Bill Gates
Kofi Annan
Hans Ulrich Obrist


Contemporary ArtContemporary Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art
Social Practice

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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Useful Resources on Olafur Eliasson




The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

written by artist

Unspoken Spaces by Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson: Contact by Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson: Werke/Work 1994 -2015 by Olafur Eliasson

More Interesting Books about Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson: Space is a Process by Jacob Jorgensen & Henrik Lundo ($) Recomended resource

Documentary in which Eliasson discusses his artistic philosophy and work as he oversees realization of his waterfalls installation

TED Talk with Olafur Eliasson

The artist discusses his work, but also the significance of art in today's global society.

Art That Challenges the World- Meet Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson explains the meaning behind his work

Designing for Versailles: Olafur Eliasson

Behind the scenes look at Eliasson's monumental Versailles exhibition in 2016

More Interesting Videos with Olafur Eliasson
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