Recorded: October 10, 2020
MELISSA CHIU: Hello everyone i’m Melissa Chiu director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and it’s my privilege to welcome you online to the Hirshhorn museum and sculpture garden for today’s discussion with John Akomfrah and Olafur Eliasson in conversation with Susan Goldberg. we’re grateful to John, Olafur, and Susan for being with us today. We’re very fortunate to have both Olafur and John’s works in our Hirshhorn museum collection and that’s partly why we’re doing the conversation today. The Hirshhorn is our leading voice for contemporary art and culture and provides a national platform for the art and artists of our time. Today’s talk marks an important moment in which we can consider the fundamental role that the arts play in shaping key issues facing our society today. John Akomfrah posed the question “Who can we trust with our collective future?” At a time when futures feel uncertain for many reasons, many creatives have turned to raising awareness of environmental issues, using culture as a platform to bolster evidence provided by science. That we are at a moment of collective crisis. Today we’ll hear from two artists who have dedicated their life and practice to addressing the climate crisis and other key global concerns. They’re joined by Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine and editorial director of National Geographic Partners. Under her leadership, National Geographic has been honored with nine national magazine awards. In 2020 National Geographic also was named the webby media company of the year as well as earning the gold medal as brand of the year for society of publication designers, the most prestigious award for visual journalism in the industry. In addition, National Geographic was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for featured photography in 2019 and for explanatory reporting in 2017. The magazine’s received numerous other awards for photography, storytelling, and graphics. I hope you’ll join us online today also at 4 pm as Laurie Anderson presents her iconic performance, Duets on Ice, streamed online for the first time.
And please join us in person soon to visit our outdoor sculpture garden and plaza here in Washington, DC. And now please enjoy today’s discussion with John Akomfrah, Olafur Eliasson, and Susan Goldberg. Susan, please join me.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Thank you thank you thank you Melissa. John and Olafur, I hope you can join me here. I’d like to just do a short introduction and then we can get started with our conversation. I’m really looking forward to talking with you both. So let me tell you first a little bit about John Akomfrah. John grew up in the 1960s in the shadow of a power station in south London and as a child he said this is what he remembers, “I felt as if I was enveloped in something whenever I played on the street. You could sense it in the air. You felt it and you saw it. Whatever was emanating from those huge chimneys. We were being poisoned as we played but no one spoke about it. The conversations in the pub tended to be about football rather than carbon monoxide poisoning.” Well decades later John’s work is all about investigating those kinds of memories and situations through his art and his filmmaking. The subjects range from the whaling industry to migration, the plight of indigenous communities to contemporary urban unrest. His latest work is Purple, which is a recent acquisition of the Hirshhorn. It’s a six screen video installation that looks at the impact of climate change across the globe and it uses archival footage and new video from 10 countries to document how landscapes have changed by warming temperatures and rising seas. And there’s music too. It’s no wonder this work is described as immersive. Olafur Eliasson is a Berlin-based, Danish-Icelandic artist whose works range from massive installations to digital media, photography, painting, and film. Often the subject at the heart of it all is climate change. In the UK, Olafur is probably best known for his weather project installation of the Tate Modern, which literally drew millions of people to Turbine Hall, many of whom laid down to bask in the glow of a fake indoor sun. Recently, he has brought large blocks of free-floating glacial ice to Copenhagen, Paris and London so people could touch these fragile fragments as they watched them slowly disappear. Olafur is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for climate action and also has a business called Little Sun, which uses portable solar lamps and chargers to bring electricity to millions of people, who otherwise would have none. I’m very delighted to welcome you both.
OLAFUR ELIASSON: Thank you.
SG: So, I wanted to just start with a broad question to both of you. I mean both of you obviously document changes to the environment through your work, and I do that too as a journalist at National Geographic. I would say that we probably tell the story of climate change one way or another every single day. And I think getting people to focus on the climate change story is kind of hard because people feel overwhelmed and they feel helpless to do anything about climate change. It’s so depressing in some ways that people can turn away. So, my question to you both is what do you see is the role of your respective work in helping people understand and relate to the climate story? And, John, why don’t I start with you.
JOHN AKOMFRAH: Well Susan and I thank you for agreeing to do this by the way. And many thanks to the Hirshhorn for inviting me and Olafur to do this. We’re friends so this helps. I’m not sure that what I conceived the work to do is to fundamentally persuade people. I think if you push me I would say that the work is about trying to move people, trying to stir something in them. And that’s something usually starts with my own life actually. You know, because I think part of what generally is disliked by most people about discussions on climate change is that it feels as if you’re talking to someone who either knows everything or is above everything or outside of everything, talking to you who’s in it. I don’t do that. My work is about trying to show very concrete ways the manifold and complex interconnections between my lived experience and the subjects that I’m discussing in the projects. And that helps. So when you say to our listeners in the beginning that I’m living in London, I talked about growing up in the shadow of a power station. That is the starting point for Purple, the six-screen piece. You know there are power stations everywhere because what mattered more than anything to me was to make sense initially for myself about what happened to me and my generation. You know, and then the hope was that as it made sense to me, both psychologically and philosophically, that it might translate to others through moving them, you know if that makes any sense.
SG: Well first let me. Olafur what do you think? I mean what do you hope people will take away from these artistic descriptions of climate change?
OE: Yeah, thank you Susan, and also thank you from me and to anyone who has clicked in by now. And to the Hirshhorn. And John, thank you for saying we’re friends. This is lovely. I want to be introduced like that every time I’m with you. And for setting the tone John. It’s always so, it’s always so, you know, when no one starts to talk like this, you just don’t know where it goes so it’s wonderful that you give it a sort of a trajectory with your gentle fierce type of way of talking. Well I think that evidently we are, every one of us, people in general, in some sort of dialogue with oneself and our surroundings and in that dialogue, there might be a little too much on the data side. And some of that stuff on the data side being what we might read in, sort of, daily, so see on the tv and the sort of fast forwarding news. There might be a lot of fear-based sort of material in there and this is like when you’re looking at it you just get more and more afraid. And it is as if we have a pool of, you know, a sort of pool of worries inside of ourselves, as the German behavioral psychologist uses a pool of worries and the pool of sort of hope, maybe. And I think we are at a point where when the pool of worries is so full, we just don’t really progress as to how to develop a stronger sense of what’s going on in the world today. We’re like, we’re like so somehow tired. And was like also COVID, and it’s like oh I don’t have any money and just like. So at that point you kind of get a little numb. And the question is whether fear-based information as such is a very efficient way. It’s not to say that all fear-based information is you know this type. It’s a little more complex so allow me to generalize a little bit right. So sometimes I think it’s actually quite interesting to work with a more embodied way of working, taking in spatial considerations and maybe actually even introduce a degree of hope or trust. And suddenly, people say oh my god that’s, that touches me. I identify. This is not my story, but I see a part of me in that story. So when John talks, for instance, I look at him and I can just see this is not me but I know the feeling. I hadn’t yet articulated what John just said, but he gave structure to something that I was thinking about by adding words and color and stuff to that. And that draws me in and it’s not the pool of worries. It’s interestingly, it’s a kind of a different place which I think gives me a certain ability to take decisions, people make better decisions, and this is where I think artistic interventions are sort of situations and there are films and occasionally the magazine you work on, very much indeed. This, the sheer beauty of, the generosity of nature, the marvel. Sometimes it just gives you a degree of confidence that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.
SG: Well I do think it is so important in our storytelling around these difficult subjects that you give people something where they’re not feeling hopeless and they do come away with some hope. So John, I want to talk to you about Purple. I saw that in a video you said that Purple came out of a series of frustrations and dissatisfactions. So can you tell me a little more about the origins of this work? I have not seen it yet, but I am so excited to see it.
JA: Right. Well Purple is, to put it prosaically, a six-channel moving image piece about being ecological, for wanting a better word. And trying to track in some way scenes from the post-war period by post-war, I mean really 1945 to the present, and moments which for me defined our relationship with the climate crisis in very concrete terms. The dissatisfactions were really to do with this, you know. Generally, most things that affect your life you don’t see. Most things that affect us we can’t see. But not only can we not see it, we can’t see how they interact and interface with the key moments, the key chapters, the key narratives of our lives. And changes in the climate are a bit like that, you know. So as I said, I grew up in parts of west London where there was routinely conversations about British society. Where it was going. And at the center of this was a conversation about its young. The young people of Britain in the 60s. Were they rebellious? Were they different? Were they violent? You know, the sort of climate that Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, for instance, came out of. Right. In all of those discussions about causality, it never came up that millions of these people who were seen as pathological and violent may well be being subjected to carbon monoxide poisoning on a daily basis, and the carbon monoxide poisoning does in fact have something to do with whether people behave reasonably or not. Never came up. Alright? And so the key thing for me was to try and make a project where many of the unseen guests who were at the table of my life at the beginning of it can be unmasked. Can be, you know, all the elephants in the room, if you will, that I was growing up in, I just wanted to make a project in which they were there. They were apparent, you know. Whether it’s, you know, rapid industrialization, carbon monoxide poisoning, rising sea levels, etc. etc. So this was a sort of key animus, if you will, for Purple.
SG: Let me ask you one other question about Purple before I turn to Olafur. You know, Purple, with the six screens, it has to be an immersive experience, but you can’t focus on everything at the same time, right? You have to look at one thing and not at the other things, and I think that I saw that you called that the ambiguity of choice, of making those choices. You know, how did you decide on this six-channel format, and how does that relate to the message that you’re trying to put out there?
JA: I’m very keen on making projects, constructing pieces in which the elements, discrete though they may be, have, you know, some form of proximity to each other. I want them to be close enough, all of the elements to be close enough so that they kind of have a conversation, right? And the net effect of that, for the viewer, that is, is I would like people to be in a position where they can make choices about which elements of the conversation they can listen to or partake in or be in the presence of, if you will. And for me, this is a way of saying to people as well, look, these are — this is a work which will be here for a long time. You know, it’s usually up for a month or more, you know. You don’t need to gorge yourself on every detail in the first viewing, and in fact, you don’t even need to necessarily sit there for the whole viewing at all, just have a look at something, go away, if you will, think, come back, if you have time. So, it’s asking and prescribing a form of spectatorship, which I think — which I would like people to feel is what the work is also in a way about, you know. It’s a work which is about time. It’s a work which is about the passing of time, and it just felt to me as if even if people didn’t necessarily get everything in one viewing, they needed to know that it was always there and waiting to have another conversation with.
SG: It sounds like what you’re also saying is that it empowers the viewer to make choices, which especially when it comes to a subject like climate change and people feel so disempowered, that’s a real turning of the tables.
JA: Indeed, indeed.
SG: That’s so interesting. So, Olafur, I saw that you were quoted as saying “The foremost purpose of art is to be art. Art cannot be put behind someone else’s wagon.” And yet, when I look at your work, it doesn’t strike me at all as art for art’s sake; it’s all about these urgent issues around climate and environment and sustainability. So, how did your interest in the environment develop?
OE: That’s like two questions in one. Well, that quote, the thing is too, it’s not that art for art’s sake does not have the ability to host a subject matter or tell a story or be about the French Revolution or whatever. Art can be many things, but only when it’s done first being art is it something else. As to the climate matter, to sort of hang on to what John just said, the sort of idea of the choice, I thought that was very interesting and the notion that you — you very well know, and should you not know, I very much recommend to go back to a painting, maybe at the Hirshhorn, and see how the painting is doing, how it’s been doing since you were there last. You might see something else. Stand close, not too close, see it from a distance, get friendly with it. Have a relationship with it over time. You’ll see as time passes, the society changes, and your relationship with the painting might change as well. So I just want to amplify the importance of just allowing the dynamic quality of everything to take place and sort of de-authoratize the relationship you might have with art as some sort of solid, monolithic object that is here to teach you something and so on. John, obviously, I think is so generous in this way, that he even makes it a part of the point that you are almost made to make up your own mind. That is, I think, also giving the — that’s also simply trusting people that they are capable of doing that, and a lot of museums, I guess it’s a bit unfair to say that they don’t trust their audience. But the other thing is they don’t trust themselves. They don’t think they are good enough, and that’s where all of that comes from. So, to say that why don’t you just go and explore, and you might become friendly with this old painting or this work by John, and I think that is putting the authority, decentralizing authority into the viewer, into the visitor, giving them credit for being actually a co-producer of the whole institution and the agenda going on. So, now the question of yours — I’m sorry. So, I grew up spending much of my vacations and sort of free time in Iceland, and as my family was a little bit and I became being involved with hiking and being out in nature, it’s all we could have thought. So, I just had a tent, and my father was typically trying to somehow make art. He would have a painting that he would do out in nature. He would be some kind of on the Rosenberg side of landscape paintings. But he himself, who I didn’t live with and therefore adored, he was very into art. He worked as a cook. And later on, when I started hiking, I often got quite involved with the details of what an arctic landscape like Iceland was like, the lunar nature of it, what a waterfall looked like, why a river wasn’t running faster than it did, why was it so cold, and how blue is the sky. I realized that a lot of people had done it before me, and almost all of them had gotten into a degree of intimacy with the fragility of — somehow the nature of nature somehow that you start to sensitize yourself, and I started to work with that in photography and all sorts of ways, taking moss, stuffing it into my backpack and going home with it. And I moved to Germany halfway through art school, and the Germans, they were just so good at making art. They were so German, also. So I just said, okay, I’m just going to make something with Iceland, something I knew, and that actually turned out to be quite good, because there was nobody who said, no, that’s not real; that’s not what you do with moss. I was like nobody did anything with moss, right? So, in a way, I enjoyed it, but all in all, I actually was quite interested in the human relationship and the psychology of the experience, the sensitizing of the — and numbness, and who is the author of holding, and how does holding moss in your hand feel? Who knows whether that is a feeling that is good or bad? How do you know whether that’s a good feeling or a bad feeling?
SG: Well, you know, when you talk about the fragility, and we can bring this up, Ice Watch, it seems to me, really epitomizes this, as these pieces of glacier are melting, and I think we can put that up on the screen. You know, maybe — what were you — I mean, tell me a little bit more about what you were trying to get at in doing this, and this has been all over the world.
OE: Well —
SG: Well, at least in Europe.
OE: Anyway, so, it was, in fact, a friend of mine who’s a geologist and glaciologist from Greenland, at the University of Copenhagen, who is originally from Greenland, actually. He had often pointed out to me that a few ice blocks that I had shown from Iceland, you can get them much bigger in Greenland. Nevertheless, I needed a bigger one because the UN together with the city of Paris invited me, and I got funding from a philanthropic organization in America. And the thing is that there was a sort of kind of belief in the worthwhile of doing it and the straightforwardness of it, and I actually had actually come to this from a slightly different perspective, namely, in a small close circle at the UN. I had done a smaller version in Copenhagen, where it was about the data nature of what the UN is giving out to the world, all of the science, right, and the UN CCC report, is that what it’s called? The environmental report that they are doing every once in a while, which I think is by far the most important printed material, well beyond the Bible and so on, I would say, right, because it’s simply about everything but the — in other words, it’s about our survival, one could say. So, nevertheless, I proposed to see if we could turn this report, the climate report, into something you could touch, because it’s just all numbers, and even the journalists were struggling with it, and that’s kind of where it was born, from Greenland. It was very helpful, and we just got a lot of wonderful people in Greenland who were committed, and everyone in Greenland is very proud to show the ice around the world. And the point is, of course, if you step up to the ice, and this might sound a little silly, you do actually go, oh, so this is what we are talking about. And it so happens that it is very blue and very beautiful to look at, and obviously, it is melting very fast, but it has millions of small air pockets inside. They might be five millimeters, but they are small bubbles, and when they come to the surface as they melt, they pop quite loudly, because the popping is the pressure of the air having been locked into the ice under high pressure for five, ten, 20, 30,000 years. Right? So what pops out is almost this little concert of popcorn, and it is air from 30,000 years ago, and if you place your nose right near the pocket, you can smell exactly the air that it was from all that time ago. You can give it a little kiss, have a lick and so on. So, all of the sensorial opportunities in this is actually quite touching. People would say — and then, you know, once you actually are closer to it, you kind of become a little humble, and then you get very close to it, and it’s, oh, my God, there’s tons of stuff going on. And that little journey, becoming friendly with the ice, until you put your hand on it and say, oh, my God, it’s cold, it’s so cold. And, obviously, everyone knows it’s cold, but this is exactly what I was talking about; the difference between having read it and knowing it from the paper and seeing it on TV or hearing it, and then suddenly having it on your hand, it’s just quite a different embodied — it’s almost like we forgot we do have a bit of tacit knowledge about what is cold and hot. It’s not something that we need to measure in order to know whether it’s cold. And that, I think, is actually something that can motivate. Like John said, I don’t think this is going to change from someone going radically against to radically for — We meet more and more of these people, I think, but I think it contributes to a discussion which is heavy on the reading side and very sort of too weak on the embodied side.
SG: Well, you know, I think this is so cool. Having been lucky enough to have been in the arctic and also in Antarctica, the ice, seeing it up close, is so moving, and yet most people don’t get to see that. So, it’s so wonderful that you brought it to people so they could see and experience it and understand how wonderful it is. John, I wanted to get back to Purple and talk a little bit about how it relates to some of your other work, for example, Vertigo Sea, your work on humankind’s relationship with the ocean, and then also with Four Nocturnes, you know, your 2019 work addressing Africa”s declining elephant population, which is also something that we write a lot about. So, how do these three works really fit together, you know, Purple, Vertigo Sea, and Four Nocturnes?
JA: You know, It’s so wonderful, listening to Olafur, and occasionally, you need reminders of why you’re friends with someone, you know, [ laughter ].
OE: [ Laughter ] oh, that”s kind.
JA: Every time he opens his mouth, you know —
OE: Thank you, John.
JA: A pleasure, my brother. The thing which is very difficult to do is to allow people to have a kind of phenomenological relationship with a fact of a piece of work. There is something, when you walk anywhere in Greenland and you see one of these enormous melting glaciers, you’re struck firstly by really just how beautiful they are, and there’s a quality of turquoise color to them that is just like — I don’t think I have seen it anywhere, you know, until I went to outside the Tate to see Olafur”s work. So, I’m enormously grateful to him and the work that he does, because it sort of brings this question of feeling and the phenomena-ity of things to the forefront of his practice. It’s kind of what I have been trying to do, because I think one of the difficulties about where and how we live at the moment is that our being is deposited in discrete pockets, self-contained pockets, where we are persuaded that they are, that this is the case, that the facticity of our being is that it is fractured and fragmented into different things. And so, on the whole, our attitude to things is, well, this is really me, and so I will spend the time singing about that. That’s not so, I’m not going to bother quite so much. And so part of what I have decided is the both ethical and aesthetic thrust of the piece is to try and, where the possible, persuade people about the elective affinities between things, affinities which go sometimes to the heart of what defines them. So, what does that mean? Well, for instance, with Vertigo Sea, I was struck by a couple of things, which seem not terribly related. One is the emergence of the whaling industry in the 16th century into this kind of behemoth, this giant of an industry. The striking coincidence about that is it’s happening at the same time as the emergence of another huge industry, which is the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They are not the same, but they are feeding off each other. So, the technologies that are being used for ship building, perfecting how much and how many tons they can hold, are then being applied to the boats and the ships that have been built to ship human beings across the Atlantic. So, there are overlaps and affinities between subjects, and the question is how do you, as an artist or a filmmaker, how do you get this across? And this is always my dilemma, you know. When you know different things, when you know, for instance, that during the Algerian civil war, as the country fought France for its independence, the French army would take political prisoners up into helicopters, dump them at sea, as a way of disappearing them. When you see that crop up in Argentina in the 70s, just the registering of those two facts is important for me. It’s not saying that they are the same, but they did happen in the same universe. What’s important is that at the heart of them was always a human being. One human being died strikingly similarly to another human being, even though they are on other sides of the planet. It just so happened that the way in which those two human beings died is also the way the biggest mammal on the planet died. They are being killed by being drowned, and these are striking coincidences which don’t mean that things aren’t the same. But it does mean that they can have a suggestive conversation about mortality, about becoming, about death, et cetera, et cetera. And you will find this thrust both in Four Nocturnes as well as Vertigo Sea, you know. And when there is famine in a part of Kenya, it doesn’t just kill human beings; it also kills elephants, in the hundreds. It always has done. Now, you could say that this doesn’t matter. You know, human beings are more important; who cares about elephants? Well, actually, you know, generally, the signal that things are about to go wrong to human beings is what starts to happen to the elephant population. So, actually, caring about elephants is a way of caring about human beings. They aren’t invisible in that sense.
I like works that do that, you know, that stretch the language of being ecological to not simply caring about the ontology of human beings but other ontologies, other sentient beings that we are having to share this planet with.
OE: I think, John, not to step in here, Susan, I think this notion of also how do you say to bring the other ontologies, when you tell a story, and I was talking about telling stories and the hosting of a narrative, you are also, I think that is what — normally, one would say that is like a subversive byproduct or an agenda even, but you are also untelling a story. So in the very same moment, you are telling a story and you are untelling another one. It’s a very odd thing, because it’s not something deeper. It’s a little bit like sinking something — in a conversation with you and Tina Kemp, you used this word unsinking, because now they are drowning, the elephants, and this notion of sinking, you are also unsinking something else at the same time. So, this idea that you are in fact seeing that there is a sort of deficit where the story is missing, and there is a void, and there is something else that should not be there, colonial or environmental or both, and then in that sense, it’s so interesting, this notion of untelling something and not to — and you are so generous, you’re not even claiming it’s the truth. It’s just another — this is so rich.
And I actually profoundly see a relationship with the ice. It is, you know, adding matter to a void which has been force fed in a very numbing way. You become numb, and suddenly, you are given by untelling what numbified you, you are given an emotional palate to actually think for yourself.
SG: It strikes me that both of you are really talking too about the interconnectedness of things, whether it’s the ice or the elephants and people, and a lot of — you know, we are facing an unprecedented time all across the world right now with COVID-19, you know, this global pandemic which has affected every person, really, on the planet. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that has affected you and whether you think that we as societies will come out of it different. You know, will it replace different knowledge? Will it make us new things? Would it make us appreciate that this is a small planet, and we are all connected? Will it make people care more about the environment? And I’m curious what you both think about that.
JA: I mean, I think that there will be unintended consequences of both the positive and negative kinds that will emerge from this, you know. And some of them are so glaring that they will be — it will be difficult for people to imagine why they hadn’t seen it at all in the first place, you know. So, for instance, there has been a way in which we thought about the cultural and the environmental, which I think is taking a very serious dent at the moment, you know. So that, you know, for instance, things which are supposed to be quote/unquote, “racial” are then, by implication, not environmental. Well, actually, they have always been the same, you know. So, for instance, when the president of the United States says to six members of Congress, “Go back to where you came from,” what he is saying is that they should go back to the s-holes that he had named those places to be in the first place. So, there was always a conjunction of the racial and the geographic, at the heart of racist insults. It was always a presumption on the part of that insult that by being called a person who is inferior, you are also being told that you come from an inferior place, a barbaric place, an uncivilized place. To be called those things is to be both named bodily and environmentally at the same time. And that sense of hierarchy on the planet in which nature and culture have this pact between them I think has taken a very serious dent. Does that mean it’s going to disappear? No. But it has very certainly taken a dent, because the hierarchy always presumed that things like, for instance, a pandemic would then affect s-holes much worse, for instance, than they would so-called advanced civilized places. Well, that hasn’t happened, so there will be all sorts of unraveling in that way by the time this is over, which I think will be permanent unravelings, you know. Some things are not going to be great, unfortunately, either. I mean, I think there were many people for whom our grasp of planetary existence was, you know, fragile and complicated at best. I don’t think this has made that sense of dread any less, you know — go away. I think if anything, it’s magnifying this. At the same time, there are obviously things that we assumed were permanent fixtures of our lives that are now not going to be anymore, you know. In order to do this, I don’t know, last year, for instance, you know, Olafur and I would have had to have flown to the Hirshhorn to do this, and we learned that actually we can do it from the comfort of our own homes, and not only that, but people are willing to listen to it as well. What a surprise.
SG: I know. That has been, actually, one of the good things. Many, many, many bad things, but that has been one of the good things. So, Olafur, tell me what has been the impact of this on you, and how is it going to change how the world works or, conversely, how people view the world?
OE: Well, I was fortunate to be at the beginning of this in a country which is run by grownups. That is, Germany. So, I, as an artist, qualified equally, like any other company, for governmental support in order to be able to take good care of the people who work for me and with me here at the studio. And that helped immensely, because I could see friends and colleagues and also people who were working in theaters and performance-based things, like music, there was an unbelievable struggle, and pretty much consistently around the world, there has been a lot of, should I say, incredible losses and sort of within the culture, as culture remains to be seen as a marginalized part of the sort of “real society.” Even though there is more employment in Europe in culture than there is in the European industry. As to the consequences, I do think people have sensitized themselves increasingly to the local, being down to Earth, just seeing what’s under my feet. Maybe I start there. Maybe I start making my own garden, and there’s, I think something there. People also started appreciating the BOP, the bottom of the pyramid of society, the work of the garbage people, the health workers, of course. There is a bit of readjustment, and the precedent today isn’t very popular, and for good reason. They are doing their very best to ruin it for the rest of us, and then there are other positive hopes. John, you do the doom and gloom, and I’ll do the positive part of it — just kidding. You were actually not doing that. But can I just say so? Because you also said about growing up in the shadow of this power station, John, I just got to thinking about it’s not more than five years ago that James Thornton, the lawyer who founded Earth Clients in London, a law firm that represents elephants for that matter, that represents nature, you could say. And it so happened that the air of London sued the city of London, because there were too many pollutants. The toxicity of the air went above the law, and, obviously, people were just laughing at him. What are you thinking? Of course you can’t just sue the City of London. But to make a long story short, he won, and it actually became a case that is quite famous, because there are these questions now, and they are everywhere, about the rights of personhood, that are we as humans 75 years after the founding of the UN charter and the end of the second world, did we forget about species, the environment, the commons? What was happening, and John was talking about it, we just forgot something, and maybe that bit of sensitivity that has come out of — and it’s not — I am generalizing a lot here, I get that, but maybe we are moving towards this whole more fundamental reconsideration. You know, if people are not constantly pushed by fear out to extremism, like in America, as I see it, then I believe that there is an opportunity in the fact that we — I don’t know whether we have become closer to each other, because I’m a little more — I don’t think that sitting and talking like this — I mean, there are some upsides, and I can go and have dinner in a second. That’s very nice. Not to say that I wouldn’t want to have dinner with you guys, but the truth of the matter is, I also find it very hard to somehow learn from the absence of my friends. It is very hard to remember what we were just talking about, because I can’t really see how you move your hands, are you smiling, you know, what’s going on? Why are we not watching each other in some kind of more embodied 3D-world. So, this is like the stone age. So, I’m afraid that there might be a downside in all of this connectedness that we are talking about, is that it is so unbelievably disembodied that I don’t know whether that has a real social upside. We are so used to being out of touch. We don’t know what it means to hold hands anymore, unless we wear a glove, right? So, and I miss — I just miss holding hands. I really do. And this is something that I find — you know, I’m a little somehow struggling with this fact that we are all somehow connected. There’s like nothing going on in a way. You know, this was not to somehow — and I was trying to be hopeful. Some German artist — Geriter says “Art is the highest form of hope.” And Desmond Tutu said, well, “I’m a prisoner of hope.” I found that so good.
SG: I think we should put up, Olafur, your Riverbed on the screen, because it really is a great demonstration of human impact on the landscape, and certainly we are affecting the landscape right now, you know, and John, it seems like this has got a very direct connection with your work as well. But Olafur, tell us a little bit about this piece and what you are trying to get across here, because I think it has a — it really brings us right to the moment that we are all experiencing.
OE: That’s funny, because it’s like what I said before, the artworks, I think they travel through time, and they also take on different subject matters as they go on. So, when I did this, I was trying to find that kind of very odd sort of bridge or link or hint between something which is profoundly, maybe contemplative on one side, but on the other side it is definitely something dead or it is something — it is like a mudslide. It is something horrible, right? And, here, in this case, it is an exceptionally beautiful museum in Denmark that is well-known for being unbelievably beautiful, because it is very classic, the whole thing, the whole package. Right? So, I thought, why don’t we see if we can nail the balance between a mudslide and some kind of Japanese rock garden, and as people would go through, there would be the whole gradually the clumsy nature of the stones, they are sort of not very stable, and suddenly you start to sort of have to. Riggle your way through the exhibition. You start to see the exhibition with your feet. It sort of starts at your feet, goes up through your body, and you’re constantly looking at where to step, where to look forward, look down, very Japanese. If we go through the mall, it’s just looking forward, to the left and to the right, right? And this whole idea of looking at your body, oh, my God, my feet — this is not good, I should be going out, and I might even get wet also. And this sort of journey through the exhibition, and as you walk through the show, it gets higher and higher up to the ceiling, so at the end — I am not sure if you could, actually, but very close, at least, and you are walking up a hill, so there is this slanting feeling. Of course, in a museum, it’s always flat, right, so there’s that famous article in a magazine about the discomfort of either working up or down. It’s much more human to walk straight, because then we don’t have to think about it. So, all of this is taking people out of balance, out there, when you’re sort of reconsidering the rules, and you realize, oh, my God, the whole visit to the museum was a construction in the first place. It’s a model. It’s a westernized highly — I wouldn’t say arrogant in that way, but I can say arrogant in the other way, that there’s this presumptuous thinking that it is going to be nailed into everything, when it’s about being natural, maybe even God sent, if you subscribe to that part. Why not reconsider the rules in the first place? Maybe we should reconsider going to the museum physically in the first place. Maybe there’s some opportunity here. — It’s actually good fun to get lost. Once you’re lost, there’s one great thing that could happen: You might find your path again. It’s amazing. Getting lost is one thing, but actually finding out where you are is like amazing.
SG: John, how important is it, in your work, do you think, to get people, as Olafur said, out of balance?
JA: I mean, you know, this is one of those pieces, as I said in the beginning, that just returns you to this question of feeling and phenomenon, and I just loved it when I experienced it and saw it, would be an understatement. What his work has that I’m very interested in exploring in my own is the question of storage. Olafur’s work is really, you know, a lot of times about systems of storage – storage of time and memory and so on. So, water, when you saw the show, you suddenly are in the presence of a system that stores a particular kind of memory. It flows in a certain way, and, you know, you know when you come in on day one, that’s how it’s going to flow on day ten and 14 and 45. So, it’s a storage system, a memory. I work a lot with these systems in another system of storage, which is moving image pieces, because, really, video, film, tape, they are just the storage systems. That’s all they are. They are not, you know — and what you’re putting in them are really forms of memory or forms of storage in the outside world or ones that you’re constructing as you go along. And I love the overlap, for instance, that you get in Purple, and I don’t even know where the idea came from of putting photographs, which are records of memory, many of life in the 40s and 50s, underwater. As you slip them — there’s one, so, the image on your right, looking at it, is of a young African-American boy, I think from 1939, 1940. It doesn’t do anything. He’s just standing there like all little boys do, just looking at you, but looking at you through a camera, which is photographed, and he was one of the images that allowed themselves to be submerged under water for Purple. I say “allowed” because, you know, we tried several images. Sometimes an image just says, “I don’t want to be here,” [ laughter ] whatever it is you’re planning with me, I don’t like it, so I don’t want to be here.” Occasionally, you put an image in, and so that image is, I would say, 12 by 16, large enough to stand its ground against the force of the water, but not too large that you can’t then photograph it, you know. And there’s a kind of immediate harmony of disharmonious material, water and a silver gelatin print. They have a conversation. I don’t know what the conversation is about. I don’t really care to know what the conversation is about, to be honest, but I can feel when it’s happening, when a photograph says I want to be a part of this and you get six screens with these images talking to you. They say very different things to different people, but I know when it’s happening. And that’s what I’m interested in, I’m interested in putting what feels like a timeless splice of memory, water, with something human and contingent, you know.
SG: Well, I think we have run out of time. I am so sorry.
JA: [ Laughter ].
SG: I thought we were just getting started here. It’s been such a fascinating conversation, and I just want to thank you both so much for your thoughtful comments today and for the amazing work that you do that really gets people to look at the world in different ways and to, you know, reconsider perhaps their beliefs and opens their mind to other ways of being and other ways of living. So, I would like to thank our audience. Thank you so much for joining us, and mostly thank you, John Akomfran and Olafur Eliasson.
OE: And thank you, Susan. Can I just add, because you sound like you are sort of deterministic when you say a final thank you, we won’t be able to say anything, John and I. So I just wanted to interrupt you. We artists, we are just so loose, we have no fear of any authority here. But I just wanted to complement, also, Susan. I was just reading up on my notes just now towards the end, and I realized you’re the first woman who is the editor in chief of the National Geographic. That’s worth mentioning. I think that’s really great. Congratulations on that, and congratulations to National Geographic for finally getting that sorted out, and I also — actually, when I was really small, I inherited a couple of meters of that yellow block. My God, God knows where it is, but you never throw it out. You just don’t do that, right? But I could tell there was a lot of untold stories in between all of the told stories as well, as we know. And National Geographic is very progressive now, trying to turn that around. We support that, the rewriting, the unthinking, the untelling, you know, that whole thing. So, seeing you as a woman, it’s just a great joy to be with you, serving in your shadow, Susan, as to all of the great work — not knowing you so well, I hope you are doing. So, thank you for that as well.
SG: Olafur, that’s very kind. We call it the journey from reverence to relevance. I look forward to meeting both of you in person one of these days, when we get on the other side of this, because I agree, it is much better in person. So thank you both, again, and thanks to our audience as well.
OE: Thank you. And thanks, John.
JA: And Olafur you owe me a drink [ laughter ]. Take care.
JA: We are still in this space.
JA: Anyone there?
SG: I’m here.