February 24, 2020

Artist Turns Love of Light Into Project for Africans

After more than a decade, Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson has returned to Los Angeles to exhibit his latest works with light and to promote his efforts to brighten the lives of people in Africa.

Eliasson’s exhibition, “Reality projector,” at the Marciano Art Foundation building in Windsor Square, floods the building’s expansive Theater Gallery with huge, projected blocks of sheer cyan, magenta and yellow that slide across the front wall and ceiling rafters of the repurposed former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple.

The show features a film, which shares the exhibition’s title, that Eliasson created out of hundreds of photos of the Marciano building while it was being renovated and repurposed before opening as a gallery in May 2017. Eliasson also worked with musician and sound artist Jónsi to create the film’s soundtrack, which resembles ambient outdoor noise.

“Reality projector” makes a person aware of how much we take light for granted — both the sunshine of Los Angeles and the electric light illuminating where we live, work, play and travel.

Eliasson, who spoke to the Journal at the show’s March 1 opening, said he was taken aback when he learned how many people on the planet don’t have access to electric light. He held up a yellow plastic lamp, about the size of a bagel and shaped like the sun. He sells these pendant lamps as part of an enterprise called Little Sun that he founded in 2012 along with engineer Frederik Ottesen. Little Sun sells the pendant lamps at a low price to local merchants in African countries, enabling these micro-entrepreneurs to resell them at an affordable price and still earn a profit.

“I wanted to take my interest in light and make it work where people have few resources.” — Olafur Eliasson

“I traveled in East Africa a lot, and you’d sit in a house and have a kerosene lantern burning right up into your face,” said Eliasson, who grew up in Iceland and Denmark. “Kids are sitting next to that, doing their homework. It’s the equivalent of sitting next to 20 cigarettes. I wanted to take my interest in light and make it work where people have few resources.”

Little Sun runs the Little Sun Foundation, which gives away the lamps to schools and to people living in refugee camps. Little Sun also works to spread awareness about the importance of sustainable energy and the problems that lack of light can bring. Lack of light prevents children from studying after dark, for example, and limits the hours that adults can safely work.

Little Sun has sold 600,000 of the little lamps all over the world and has worked with more than 600 African entrepreneurs. The lamps are available at the Marciano Art Foundation gift shop.

As with his art, Eliasson said he wanted the little lamps to be relevant to people from all communities. “For me as an artist, what matters is what we have in common,” he said. “We all want to have a good life and have beautiful design in our homes.”

“Reality projector” runs through Aug. 26 at the Marciano Art Foundation, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To learn more about the solar pendant, visit littlesun.com.

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”