Olafur Eliasson has a long history with MIT and many local fans have been fortunate to hear him speak, attend a lecture or meet him in person over the years. In 2014, he received the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts that included a residency at the institution. At that time, he brought his “Little Suns,” a portable solar energy light source that he developed in 2012, to campus for support, development and innovation. His recent public art project, “Northwest Passage,” brings together his environmental concerns with the work he has done with his colleagues at MIT.
Eliasson’s artist talk and sculpture dedication on February 26, 2019 offered up a window into his practice and way of thinking. Trained as an architect, he thinks about the big picture. For example, “Northwest Passage” refers to the sea route to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America. The ice caps in the passage are melting due to the expansion of global industry, which allows for more trade along the route that leads to more climate change. One could see this pattern of circular thinking when one looks up at the recent Percent-for-Art installation at MIT.nano, MIT’s new nanotechnology research center. Stainless steel tiles reflect half-moons of yellow light. These simple materials evoke something profound. Walking underneath it, viewers are reflected in the tiles, which one could read as being complicit in the cycle of climate change.
I am not sure Eliasson would make those explicit connections to the piece, or that the piece is built to convey that message. It is much more poetic than that. He deals in the currency of ideas using spatial interventions and sensory experiences to engage viewers. For example, his recent “Ice Watch” installation of large blocks of ice in Copenhagen (2014), Paris (2015) and London (2018) that coincided with the United Nations’ meetings on climate change enabled audiences to see, touch and embrace the same ice that is melting in the polar ice caps.
Likewise, his very famous “Weather Project,” a multi-sensory installation at Turbine Hall in London at the Tate Modern, brought the illusion of the sun and atmospheric clouds indoors. “Northwest Passage” employs a similar use of reflected light to complete the optical illusion of suns or moons in the stainless steel tiles that evoke floating pieces of ice.
Eliasson is famous for his studio in Berlin, Germany that buzzes with the energy of a beehive and he works in a very collaborative fashion. On a larger scale, MIT’s Percent-for-Art Program facilitates site-specific art projects for the community juggling multiple partners. As Yuri Stone, assistant curator, noted, Wilson Architects, Turner Construction Company, Sullivan and McLaughlin Companies, MIT Facilities, Studio Olafur Eliasson and many others brought the piece to completion.
Coming full circle, MIT and Olafur Eliasson’s Studio were successful in creating this new public artwork by working in two countries on different continents that are both connected to the Northwest Passage. Bringing attention to the future of culture and industry this piece connects MIT.nano’s mission and Olarur Eliasson’s artistic practice in this compelling new work of art.
(Olafur Eliasson’s “Northwest Passage” installation can now be seen at MIT.nano Building 12, 222 Memorial Dr., Cambridge, Massachusetts.)