Little Sun Lamp by Olafur Eliasson: Energy, a material of the artwork ?

Little Sun Lamp  harvests solar light during the day to illuminate the night. Although very simple with a small solar panel, a LED to light up at night and between the two, a battery that stores the energy of sunlight during the day, it is the basis of an amazing artwork. These lamps are a multitude of little suns. Each illuminates a child who can study when it is dark, and no longer breathes the toxic vapors of a kerosene lamp. 

Small, identical solar lamps make together a artwork

Each one illuminates a child who is studying and who no longer breathes the toxic fumes of a kerosene lamp. Little Sun Lamp: this is simply a set of small lamps, which are  all identical, and above all autonomous. This small lamp is the elementary brick of the work. It can be reproduced in millions of copies if it is truly successful. The project site mentioned a distribution of 500,000 copies by the end of 2016. It is more than a million at the beginning of 2020. It is a 21st century work of art. Jacques Attali remarked in his “Histoire de la Modernité”:

Olafur Eliasson and Little Sun Lamp

“an artwork will be an act, an object, a situation, a creation that will make you want to be altruistic and appreciate altruism”.

Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen produce an altruistic artwork here. This work is very contemporary in its artistic, social and scientific resonance. Putting these three aspects into perspective is the subject of this article.

A field of Little Sun Lamp

I have discovered Olafur Eliasson

I do not know what it is for everyone, but for a physicist, it is a real shock to meet the works of Olafur Eliasson, one of the outstanding artists of our time. For me, this was at the opening of the Vuitton Foundation in Paris. In particular, he exhibited large rooms that play with light in space. Contact (2014) that I will call the “immense room with mirror walls” made me play a long time with the spatial symmetries that one studies in mathematics and physics at the college.

Contact (2014): Playing with mirrors in the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Fondation Vuitton  Paris 2015

In a device that welcomed me and embraced me, I was the manipulated point, with the simplicity, sobriety and elegance that one usually meets in thoughts of mathematicians. Olafur Eliasson led me to wander around his installation and play with it like a child. Happy surprise for a scientist to realize that he is an element of his own experience in an artwork. By walking through a materialization, in fact an original, singular and magnificent representation, one could also, by playing, explore universal and abstract scientific concepts. Does Elafur Oliasson create with this idea in mind? To tell the truth, I don’t know. It is very likely but knowing the answer may be irrelevant. It is simply for me an evidence that helps me to love his works.

Energy, a material of the artwork?

In Little Sun Lamp, the light is there. Obviously since the whole project is centered on this small solar lamp. Little Sun Lamp wants to be a little sun in the middle of everyone’s night.  And so it is also an artwork that processes energy. Energy, here in the sense of physics, appears as a constituent, as a matter of the artwork. In classical physics, first of all, energy is first connected to movement through the product of a force by displacement. As soon as real movement is introduced into artworks, the energy, which is a key element in our description of the world, becomes an artistic material. My knowledge of art history does not allow me to follow the thread of this history of energy as a material in art. In this situation, a physicist makes two simple points. On the one hand, if someone can enlighten me on this issue, I would be delighted. On the other hand, I base my remarks on two recent and well-known examples.

The energy of the 20th century in Jean Tinguely’s work

In the Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, you can admire Tinguely‘s machines. Tinguely’s machines are typical examples of the twentieth century in which they were born. In order for these artworks to start moving, they often incorporate a motor.  

Une machine de Jean Tinguely 
Musée Jean Tinguely Bâle Suisse

These engines are connected to huge networks that distribute either fuel or electrical energy, whose production sites are well known as power plants and are managed by huge companies like EDF in France. All these plants have in common to burn something (nuclear material, gas, coal or oil) to heat water (the hot bath) and to be connected to the ambient air or to a river, the cold bath. Gasoline engines, power plants are thermal machines described by thermodynamics. In the work of Tinguely, an artist who is a child of the industrial revolution, the energy that is one of the constituents of his artwork is nearly free. It does not cost anything if one considers the offered services. This availability and abundance have transformed humanity in depth. On the top of that, as many times developed by Michel Serres and many others, it has freed most of us from all painful physical work. The use of energy requires only one switch to be pressed. Very easy. Everyone, at every moment, to move, to heat home, to wash, to eat and therefore also to light up, uses an energy that is not at human scale. In most cases, it is enough to move a finger for a brief moment to put into play and consume an enormous amount of energy. Beside, more and more, a major activity in our lives is managing information flows. Who, in our cities in particular, works today with matter and pays with his body, the price of the associated energy, as it has been the case for centuries?

Energy and air movements in Calder work. 

Calder’s Mobiles were also born in the 20th century. Mobiles were named by Marcel Duchamp during their presentation in Paris in 1932. Alexandre Calder is a mechanical engineer by training. These Mobiles can be of consistent size and move large masses.

Calder Mobile (one of the largest it seems) National Gallery of Washington.

Attention must be paid to the handling and application of large masses because, even for slow movements, the associated energies are important. Don’t make big masses moving whoever wants to. It is difficult and dangerous. In fact, it is extremely real.  Beside Calder gives us to see, to perceive, the energy associated with the movement of the masses of air around us, in which we live. His Mobiles, complex artworks, on the verge of equilibrium and immobility, underline, practically in the absence of wind, these quiet and powerful movements, disordered and permanent, ultimately fuelled by the solar heating of the atmosphere.

Through the evidence of movement, the exchanges of energy with the circulating air reflect the artwork’s relationship to the world, its “coupling with the environment”. The work exchanges energy with the rest of the world. It is not “an isolated system”, as we say in physics. The way we see it, depends on the state of the world around it.

This coupling to the environment at work in Calder’s art pieces, is not the one manifested by Tinguely’s machines. Its machines are supplied with energy by cables that come from far away and are physically connected to the world as a whole by electricity networks and power stations. Calder’s Mobiles, here and now, are coupled with the circulation of the ambient air, which takes place in successive scales in the overall movement of the atmosphere. 

In a world that, out of necessity, raises the question of resources, matter and energy, Calder’s work on energy, the material of the artwork, appears to be very modern.

A useful artwork of art, this is weird!

This modernity is even more evident with Olafur Eliasson, a very engaged artist in the major questions for the future of humanities such as global warming, shortage of ressources… With Little Sun Lamp, Frederik Ottesen and he play with the daily cycle of light energy, and make the artwork periodic, hanging on a circadian cycle, the alternation of day and night. All these small solar lamps build a network that they want huge. This network does not carry any energy. It « only » carries the feeling of being connected by a shared use: to give oneself light in the night. For that, this use does not degrade anything. To materialize it, Little Sun Lamp integrates a maximum of knowledge, intelligence, a minimum of materials and no fossil energy for its operation.

On Aisa Mijeno’s SALt project, Barack Obama said:

I think Aisa [Mijeno] is a perfect example of what we’re seeing in a lot of countries — young entrepreneurs coming up with leap-frog technology,” 

Little Sun Lamp serves to transform and store energy to light a child at night. The affirmation of the social utility of the Little Sun Lamp at a time when a billion people live without electricity is a component of this work of art. This is its modernity.

Since the occurrence of the massive use of oil and electricity, humanity is looking for the massive transformation and storing of energy to light a child who is learning at night. But here it is for each and every one of us, here and now, every day, in complete autonomy, free of charge, with little or no wear and tear, and practically without waste. A constellation of small lights that carry hope into the night. Like the sun that rises each morning…

Little light in the night that chases away the darkness

Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen underline in this artwork on energy and light, one of the central questions in our future life: what will be the light we use in the world to come?  This was the question of the scientific exhibition Luminopolis of Cap Sciences at Bordeaux (3 juin 2017 – 30 mars 2018). This exhibition, of which I was one of the scientific advisors, has strong links with Little Sun Lamp. Are we going to continue to use light which appears a free energy, to enlighten the world massively as the images taken from space show us, and thus to suppress the night sky? A paradox is certainly that we do not really realize, asleep in darkened rooms, how disruptive we are to all ecosystems by altering the alternation between day and night. Or, as Olafur Eliasson suggests, are we going to rediscover life around little lights in a closer darkness, but which is not populated by our dark ideas?  

Olafur Eliasson Combines Art and Solar Technology to Shed Light on the 1 Billion People Who Live Without Electricity

Published by JoelChevrier

a physics professor at the university passionate about contemporary art . Scientific curator of the Soulages Arts&Sciences exhibition « Noir, c’est noir ? » Lausanne Switzerland (2016-2017) . Collaboration with Giuseppe Penone for artwork Essere vento : we pushed sculpture on sand grain down the micrometer size. Exhibition Corps de Pierre 2017. . Collaboration with choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for exhibition at Pantheon Paris 2017 . Member of Strategic Council at ENSCI Les Ateliers Paris (2017-…). . PI of Descitech project (2014-2018): « Sciences, design and society: the factory of contemporary worlds » . Member of the Board at Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et de Design Grenoble/Valence (2015-...) . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Science Frugale” at science museum Espace Pierre Gilles de Gennes . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Luminopolis” at science museum Cap Sciences (Bordeaux 2017-2018).

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