Olafur Eliasson’s Little Sun to Illuminate an NYC Nightwalk

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World-renowned artist Olafur Eliasson is recognised for his sculptures and large-scale installation art employing elemental materials such as light, water, and air temperature. With his The Little Sun project, he has captured the imaginations of millions of people around the world — not least because it bridges the gap between sustainable design, social activism, and art.

Now, the Danish-Icelandic artist is bringing his Little Sun to New York City’s Governors Island for a unique “solar nightwalk”. A collaboration between Eliasson, artist Nathan Koch, and Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts, the free nightwalk event will open to the public on August 3 and formulate an “off the grid experience” in which participants will enjoy a guided walk across the Island at sunset and, in the process, create a living work of art together.

Ahead of the Solar Night Walk on Governors Island, #DenmarkInNY spoke to Olafur Eliasson about the inspirations for the Little Sun project and how it all came together.

DKNY: First off, tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea of Little Sun — what was the genesis of this project and why did you feel the need to create it?

OE: Six years ago, my friend Frederik Ottesen was working on a solar plane, and I was involved in some questions regarding its design. We were tossing ideas around, discussing the idea of a global campfire and a global torch together, and we came up with the idea that everyone in the world should be able to hold a bit of sunlight in the hand. As the sun went down while we were talking about this, we thought about prolonging the day by capturing the energy of the sun via a solar panel and then releasing it again through an LED light. We discussed the feeling of co-owning the sun with everyone else, connectivity. What does it mean to hold power in your hand? How does this meaning translate into a feeling? How does it feel to have energy and how it feels not to have energy? What is the relationship between felt power and self-confidence?

The fascinating aspect about the Little Sun is how it fuses design, art, and functionality. Tell us how the inspiration for the design came about and how the Little Sun is being used around the world in contexts where electric light is scarce.

One of the things that drove the project was the challenge of taking something that was difficult to understand, such as solar energy, which is very technical, and make it something palpable. We asked ourselves how we could give someone the feeling of holding power in the hand. This is a very liberating feeling: I take the energy from the sun, which belongs to all of us, and take it with me. I feel I have resources. I am energy. I collect it like a currency. I charge myself and take it home with me in the evening.

In areas without electricity, this stored sunlight is used after dark to illuminate schoolbooks, to do home chores, to keep a kiosk open for a few more hours, basically for being independent. This is the moment energy becomes tangible. Making this feeling explicit, and thereby building users’ self-confidence, was one of the main creative goals for Little Sun.

It was also important to make Little Sun a desirable, creative object that inspires all its users. While most ideas for the bottom-of-the-pyramid segment do not take aesthetics into account, I believe design matters to everyone. And great design does not have to be expensive. We have worked hard to keep the Little Sun solar-powered lamp affordable for the end user, while maintaining a high technical standard and making it pleasing to the eye. The lamp’s design is based on the Ethiopian meskel flower, which carry positive associations. Little Sun users are not aid recipients but individuals with a desire for beauty in their life, just like everyone else.

This is very important, because if we want to create stakeholders and people who are motivated to push for change, we need to empower them. We need to give people the feeling that they can make a difference.

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