Ólafur Elíasson's new project makes us think about power, in many senses of the word
Internationally renowned artist Ólafur Elíasson has always been a fan of a spectacle. Whether he’s pumping tens of thousands of litres of water out of New York’s East River to form waterfalls, painting the rivers of Japan fluorescent green, or designing the façade of Reykjavík’s own concert hall Harpa, his art has always been imbued with a sense of extravagance.
It may therefore come as a surprise that his newest venture is a relatively unassuming solar-powered lamp that measures roughly five inches across. Little Sun is the name he and his design partner—and the company’s co-founder—Frederik Ottesen gave the yellow plastic lamp, which looks somewhat like a 3D model of a child’s drawing of the sun.
Sipping coffee in Addis Ababa
“Frederik and myself were having coffee with a German engineer friend of ours in Addis Ababa and chatting about design when said German engineer told us that here in Africa, we shouldn’t worry about the design of the thing, just make sure it works,” Ólafur tells me when I enquire about the design of Little Sun. “It struck me then that this is the general attitude of people from the Western world working in Africa. There is this condescending and stigmatizing view that people in Africa only care about functionality and not about pleasure. I disagree. I think everyone in the world wants to have beautiful things in their lives. Why do we live in a society where people in the Western world keep patronizing the continent of Africa?”
Ardent not to adhere to their German friend’s principles, Ólafur and Frederik set out to make something “beautiful and emotional,” Ólafur explains. “What is important is the unifying nature of the Little Sun. We wanted to make something that is just as pleasing to children and grown-ups, whether they’re in Iceland or Ethiopia. It’s about being the same, not different.”
Thus, Little Sun was born. Whilst the lamp is a small item in itself, the company’s ambitions are fairly grandiose. Their mission is twofold. Firstly, to supply a cheap, reliable and environmentally friendly light source to some of the 1.6 billion people in the world who don’t have access to electricity, and in the meantime provide entrepreneurial opportunities to communities by training salespeople and help getting their businesses of the ground. Secondly, the company maintains that selling Little Suns to “off-grid” communities benefits them in a multitude of ways. The lamp acts as a replacement for hazardous and polluting kerosene lamps, and by doing so can help children study, allow businesses to stay open longer, provide more opportunities for people to socialize, and so on and so forth. To make the lamp affordable to “off-grid” communities, the company subsidizes the lamps by selling them at a premium in countries that do have access to power. The profits of those sold to people on the grid help to pay for the ones sold off the grid.
Ólafur calls this unique business model an “entrepreneurial social business.”
“First of all, we couldn’t afford to just give them away”, he tells me when I ask him why they didn’t opt for a more traditional aid organisation model. “Besides, if we were to give the Little Sun away, the small electronics shop owner down the road from where we sat in Addis Ababa would go out of business.”
Instead Ólafur went to the owner of said electronics store and asked him to be their partner and help them sell the lamps in the city. Fasil, the shop owner, agreed to help out and has since then sold Little Suns in Addis Ababa.
Fasil and the Milanese art elite
“I then told Fasil that I was going to Milan for a Little Sun event. We were doing a similar thing as we’re doing in Iceland right now. We had a launch there with a pop-up store and a party and so on. Anyway, Fasil was very excited about the whole thing and wanted to come with us to Milan, as he loved the product and was looking forward to being our partner and working with us. In the end the venture proved way too expensive for him, as he is a small-scale businessman, but in his mind he was fully capable of joining us for a party in Milan.”
Ólafur then shared Fasil’s story with the art elite in Milan and his audience insisted on partying for Fasil. “And that’s the difference between someone like Fasil and the great people in Milan,” he tells me. “Fasil was creating a project with the people in Milan, and the people in Milan were creating a project for Fasil. I realised that the distance from Ethiopia to Italy is much shorter than the distance from Italy to Ethiopia.”
“I feel there is a need to change the way we think about things,” Ólafur continues. “In my mind we’re all on the same boat. Of course, the continent of Africa is to a great extent dependent on the rest of the world, but I think we’re all dependent on Africa. We shouldn’t be focusing on each other’s differences but rather on how we are all dependent on each other.”
The personal power station
Little Sun’s social business model has so far been successful. Multiple partnerships with NGOs and public offices as well as the private sector (including a collaboration with vodka brand Absolut at the Coachella festival in California) have helped the company ship close to 200,000 lamps all over the world and set up shop in eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But when talking to Ólafur, you get the feeling they’re just getting started.
“We set out to change this aforementioned somewhat condescending mindset of the traditional aid industry,” to create, as the project’s website calls it “a work of art that works in life.” Ólafur goes on: “In general, culture enjoys a lot of trust. It’s reliable and transparent, and most importantly often ‘bottom up.’ It’s based on the local opinion makers, creatives and so on, and this is what I try to bring into the Little Sun economic model. A trust- or caring-economy. Trust is a robust currency.”
Furthermore, Ólafur maintains that this little solar-powered lamp has an educational quality, one with the potential to change people’s view on energy consumption. “Iceland is a great example. In Iceland it’s really difficult to understand what energy actually is. We just look at the plug in the wall and take it for granted that it provides energy. I think we need to ask ourselves this question if we want to have a sustainable future. We need to think about what comes out of those two small holes in the wall.”
Whilst Ólafur admits Little Sun is a wholly new and unique challenge for him, he also insists that it’s a very logical extension of his previous work as an artist. “I think my art has always been about making things explicit,” he explains. “I try to make abstract ideas understandable and explicit in a tangible way. And now I can make power explicit. If a child charges the Little Sun and then uses it on a camping trip, it realises that the lamp holds the sun it collected today. You have your own power station. You make your own energy. I think it’s an important learning curve for a child, as when that child grows up it’s more likely to make a sane energy choice.”
“The Little Sun is about being powerful. About holding your own power station in your hands. Instead of talking about who doesn’t have power let’s talk about what it feels like to have power. That feeling is the same in Reykjavík as it is in Addis Ababa.”
It certainly looks like Ólafur’s little yellow plastic lamp might just be his biggest, most ambitious work to date.
The Little Sun pop-up store will operate out of Söluturn at Lækjartorg until September 1.