Olafur Eliasson’s Little Suns at Tate Modern shine a bright light on the Olympics

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If you are looking for a nifty solar powered lamp your first stop is more likely to be a camping shop than an art gallery. Groundbreaking artist Olafur Eliasson’s new project for London 2012 festival at Tate Modern is set to change that.

 

Working with solar engineer Frederik Ottesen, Eliasson has designed a lamp – named Little Sun – for use by the one in five people on the planet who live off grid.

That’s not such a new idea. In 2007 the Lighting Africa project was launched with the aim of encouraging growth in sustainable lighting solutions to address the problem. And big hitters like Philips and Siemens-owned OSRAM already have solar lamps out on the market.

Despite all these efforts to get solar lamps to off grid families, many still rely on kerosene lamps for light. This costs them 300 times more than an equivalent amount of energy on-grid.

Eliasson and Ottesen’s aim was to improve by a factor of 10 the amount of light provided and decrease the cost by the same factor. With Little Sun they have done just that by incorporating a new, high powered LED with more standard solar lamp technology. For 5 hours of solar charging, the lamps give 5 hours of light.

 

But it doesn’t stop there. Most equipment for off-grid living is optimised for robustness. Consulting with researchers at the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and off-grid communities, the designers realised that the lamp, while robust, would also need to be aesthetically pleasing to successfully take off. They realised, says Eliasson, that their target audience would need to think: “I want to wear this during the day and I’m excited about it”. “Everyone wants a beautiful object,” he argues.

 

The resulting product is indeed beautiful – a bright yellow sun-shaped (or flower-shaped depending on your perspective) lamp on a lanyard of the same colour. Every aspect has been carefully thought through, such as the incorporation of ventilation into the design to avoid overheating in the strong sub-Saharan African sunshine.

 

So how is it art? Eliasson, famous for among other things his The Weather Project – a huge yellow “sun” that appeared in Tate Modern’s turbine hall in 2003 to critical acclaim, is planning an intervention at the gallery over the 12 week Olympic period. Every Saturday night after dark, the Surrealism gallery will be immersed in darkness and visitors will be forced to navigate using only their Little Suns. The aim is to connect visitor – those of us who have light constantly at our finger-tips – to the light sources. “A blackout is a way of experiencing having no light,” says Eliasson. “Walking in darkness, it’s not just about using the light as a way of guiding, but also seeing. Your eye is in your hand.”

As well as experiencing the gallery in a new way, visitors will have the chance to participate in a work of Solar Graffiti – a video project by Eliasson that captures the trails of moving Little Suns. The devices will be on sale at the gallery, and the profits used to fund local startup companies in the off grid communities.

 

Eliasson has successfully combined art, design, technology and social entrepreneurship with this project in a way that not only transcends these traditional boundaries, but in fact renders them obsolete. A fitting tribute to the global gathering that London 2012 hopes to be.

 

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