Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson makes art for a more thoughtful world – and his in-studio kitchen feels much the same about food.
“When my parents divorced and I was really small, my mother fed me tinned baked beans. You can eat those white beans in tomato sauce straight out of the can with a spoon. My father was a cook on a fishing boat; my mother was alone. They were 19 when they had me and sometimes we had to do with very little, which was a good learning experience: I came to treasure a good meal. And I mean treasure it.
My father was a chef, my sister is a chef – she’s cooking here today – and my uncle is also a chef. If you are surrounded by people who are good at cooking you end up like me: being a bad cook. I can pan-fry a fish and cook a chicken but the truth is I don’t cook a lot. I find making food very stressful. I’m slow at preparing it and cutting vegetables takes forever. But growing vegetables is incredibly relaxing. I’m more interested in fishing, agriculture and gardening – if I became more involved in food I’d grow vegetables.
This [a broccoli stalk] is actually a type of battery: there’s solar energy in here. If I eat it, I get energised – charged. And in turn we manufacture the Little Sun [Eliasson’s portable solar led lamps]. If this really were my last meal I would in some sense be eating the sun.
I’d have my last meal here in my studio with my staff and my family. Eating is a social thing. When I’m alone I don’t eat; if I was not with people I’d probably starve. For me eating is about the relationships you have during the day with people but also the relationships with the things you do. Interdependence and consequence – cause and effect – are all incredibly important. Everything we eat here is environmentally considered. It might still have a carbon footprint but it’s at least close to not having one. Our kitchen thinks about this a lot; our lunches are organic and vegetarian.
Here at the studio the communal lunches allow the departments to see each other. I like to think they talk about their work but I think they only do that occasionally. I depend on people’s commitment to the studio and the food is an opportunity to express my care for the team – and ensure their health. We keep the flu rate low. In the winter we serve a lot of vitamin C; sometimes in December we serve more foods with vitamin D and even do anti-depression exercises.
The studio has grown a lot. We have about 80 people working here and about 30 more on Little Sun and [our] architecture projects. It has taken 20 years to cultivate our idea of art as well as a sense of civic patronage and trust. We have 21 languages in the building, we have friends in all continents and we’re involved in projects in China, North America, South America and Africa. We take the environment seriously so we take food seriously.
What I’m focused on in art is where you can find real people and real responsibility. In the studio’s kitchen I focus on the fun and good times but it’s also about dignity and respect. It’s about being sophisticated without being arrogant – and sophisticated without being ignorant. The space between ignorance and arrogance is so small; one step and you’re already in one of the two categories.”
Born in 1967 in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents, Olafur Eliasson is one of the art world’s most visible players. Seminal installations include “The Weather Project” in London’s Tate Modern (2003), “New York City Waterfalls” in New York (2008) and “Ice Watch” in Copenhagen and Paris (2014 to 2015); a new exhibition will take place in Versailles from June. Recent projects include Little Sun, a portable lamp that has been sent to off-grid locations including 13 African countries.
Since 2008, Studio Olafur Eliasson has been in a former brewery in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district; the original studio dates to 1995. Across four storeys the space includes workshops, an architectural department, an in-house research department, a painting studio and a kitchen. The cooking team – which sometimes includes Eliasson’s sister Victoria Eliasdóttir – think up the menus. Recipes appear in Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen published by Phaidon.
Barley salad with celeriac and lovage; steamed broccoli; broccoli salad; beer bread; roasted sunchokes
Filtered water and coffee