How Artist Olafur Eliasson Finds Inspiration in Scandinavia's Sunlight

© Felix Odell

The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson—whose work explores our perception of the natural world—speaks with Departures about the magical quality of sunlight in the far north.

The countries of Scandinavia lie relatively high in the northern hemisphere. The sun is low in the sky as it travels, and because the sun sets at a very shallow angle, twilights are quite long. At the equator, you have a twilight of maybe 20 minutes. You go from high day to pitchblack in half an hour.

In Scandinavia, it can take six hours from the time when the sun starts to set to when it is done. Over the course of 24 hours, you can have 12 hours of twilight. A fair amount of what we do in a day is, in fact, done in twilight. At twilight you have a dramatically illuminated landscape.

In Iceland, my native country, mountains are often brightly lit on one side and very dark on the other. The light and the shadow there render the mountain and tell you about its shape. By contrast, if you are near Vesuvius, in Naples, Italy, the sun is a lot higher in the sky. Paintings of Vesuvius often show it as being equally luminous on all sides because the sun is so high.

In Scandinavia, landscape painters often indicate the shape of the landscape with light and shade, whereas in Italy, they use the color blue to indicate depth, the way the Impressionists did in the South of France, creating space by using colors in a more vivid way. But in the northern tradition of light, it was darkness that was used to create voids, not the color blue.

Looking at the Dutch painter Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, you will see the light coming in at an angle. That’s typical of Northern European art, where light is used as a spatial dimension. Light doesn’t just make things glow; it indicates the depth of the space you’re looking at.

Edvard Munch took that to an extreme, using darkness not just as a spatial void, but also as a psychological void. Of course, light is also fundamental to growing things. But the farther north you go, the more fragile the agriculture becomes. And Scandinavia encompasses that boundary, on one side of which light has an economic role—in agriculture—and on the other side of which light takes on a more mythological role.

In the springtime when I was maybe five or six years old, there was the oil crisis. Iceland had not fully converted to hydroelectric power yet, and I remember electricity being unreliable. At eight o’clock, after dinner, power was turned off. I have a vivid memory of a bell that rang.

We would be sitting in this very warm, orange, incandescent light, and suddenly the only source of light was the twilight, which was a lot bluer. So my uncle and my grandparents and I would all move to the window and sit and do things together around the window and enjoy the ambient quality of the blue light coming in from outside.

From the window of my grandparents’ house in the city of Hafnarfjör ður you could look north and see the Snæfellsjökull Glacier—it’s the place where, in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, they find the path that takes them down into the earth being illuminated by the setting sun. You could look north from my grandparents’ window and see the glacier illuminated by the setting sun.

From that dark house, as we looked out over the sea, that glacier illuminated by the setting sun on a peninsula some 70 miles away was glowing in the most spectacular way. And that is one of my first memories of how Nordic light can be so unusually magical. I work a lot with light.

I am very interested in the experiential and perception-related questions about how light affects us, both physically and emotionally. What is the felt experience of light? Humans have a circadian rhythm, of course, which is our temporal clock, our biological relationship with light. As we wake up, the bluish tone in the daylight brings our physical, biological chemicals to a more alert state, to attentiveness.

As the day goes on, the light gets warmer. And of course in northern Scandinavia, there is the phenomenon of having very short or even no days, which, as we know, might cause a lack of endorphins that leads to winter depression. So I am fascinated by how our cultural and our biological relationships to light overlap.

Adapted from an interview with Kevin Conley