Those familiar with the work of artist Olafur Eliasson will likely immediately think of a giant sun. The Danish-Icelandic artist is well known for The Weather Project, an art installation in which a massive illuminated orb hung in the main hall of the Tate Modern. Since that 2003 show, Eliasson, along with engineer Frederik Ottensen, has continued to work with the celestial medium as his subject matter, having created the Little Sun project in 2012. Partly an art project, and partly a solution to the problem of access to energy in developing nations, Little Sun is a solar-powered LED lamp intended to provide affordable–and stylish–light to the 1.6 billion globally without electricity. Now, Eliasson has partnered with Absolut Vodka to create the Little Sun art bar at the Coachella Arts and Music Festival.
You might think that last thing anyone partying at the desert music fest needs is more sun. With temperatures cresting over 100 degrees, a big part of the annual two-weekend music pilgrimage involves making peace with (and having suitable protection from) the giant fireball in the sky. But, in fact, the art bar is designed as a haven from the punishing heat, and a space to turn light into something tangible.
In the Little Sun art bar, people are invited to use the Little Sun lamps to express themselves with a kind of light graffiti. They can write or draw with the light, take photos, and then share it on social media. At the same time, they’re invited to learn more about the Little Sun project in a space designed by Eliasson and design firm Wolff Olins–and of course enjoy Little Sun-inspired Absolut cocktails.
Eliasson says the installation is “about creating a light environment, a space where light is the defining element. Light graffiti is inspiring because it makes explicit something that surrounds us but that we can barely ever see as something concrete. By moving with the Little Sun, you shape with your body the power you’re holding in your hand. What this does is open up your senses, making you reflect on the presence of your body in space and its tactile relation to something as ephemeral as light, which we so often fail to really feel. So this installation is about embodied knowledge, about feeling something concretely that we often only feel abstractly.”
Afdhel Aziz, director, brand marketing, Absolut Vodka at Pernod Ricard USA says Eliasson was chosen as the brand’s artistic partner for Coachella for being an artist whose work pushed boundaries. Aziz had encountered Eliasson’s Little Sun project at Art Basel, which is where Absolut first introduced the art bar concept–one that gives complete creative control of the bar to the artist, including drink concoctions. Enamored with the work, Aziz approached him with the prospect of giving him a space to promote his Little Suns concept to Coachella’s youthful and socially engaged audience, which would surely benefit Eliasson’s work. The upside for Absolut? The Little Sun concept also neatly fits with the brand’s Transform Today marketing platform.
“The Little Sun project is really about the transformative power of art to inspire and help communities as well,” says Aziz, noting that since 1985 Absolut has partnered with more that 550 artists on over 850 commissioned projects. “This project was the perfect illustration of it–how an artist and an engineer can create something that is not only useful but beautiful. So, it fit on multiple levels: how he’s such and interesting artist, and how he used his art to create something that was really practical and could be transformative.”
While one might question how receptive throngs of young people partying and dancing their butts off in a desert might be to a socially responsible message–and one sponsored by a vodka brand at that–Aziz says the response has been great. On the first day over 5,200 people visited the art bar, though the promise of shade and booze were likely a contributing factor. “The Coachella audience is different in that it’s very engaged socially and artistically. We knew they were engaged with art and open to the idea of checking out an experience by a famous artist like Olafur,” says Aziz. “But on another level, the Millennial audience is engaged with social issues. They’re curious about how they can connect with a purpose. They connect well to brands that support purposes. So even though the Little Suns are probably more useful to someone in a developing world, I think that audience is interested in issues like this–like how does art help communities.”
Eliasson says from his perspective, art, music, and design all have the ability to be profound cultural forces in the way they each have the intuitive ability to inspire and capture an audience’s attention. “As an object of design, Little Sun is a natural fit with a music festival: they both have as a major goal reaching out to the broadest audience possible,” he says. “To do this, the language that we use at Little Sun–the conceptual language as well as the practical language–has to be the same whether we are engaged with a kiosk owner who sells chewing gum and cigarettes on the streets of Addis Ababa, or with a visitor to an upscale Milan department store who is shopping for a designer handbag. The creative diversity of Coachella is simply another platform for us to apply this universal language of light and our shared environment.
“The truth is that the inequality of energy distribution in the world is something that connects and affects all of us in a major way,” continues Eliasson. “The challenge today is that we so often do not feel this connection, and this is why Little Sun finds such a welcome home at Coachella: it is all about letting you celebrate a connectedness that exists between everyone and feel the ways we are holding hands with our environment and each other.”
The Little Sun art bar will continue to illuminate, shade, and (responsibly) intoxicate the masses at Coachella during its second weekend, but for Eliasson, the work with Little Sun continues. “Our goal is to get as many Little Suns off-grid as possible. It works in terms of empowerment–it’s about giving the power of the sun to a lamp; it’s about the power of a lamp giving an individual the power over the grid; it’s about the power over the grid giving people the power to determine the direction of their lives. Light is life, and everyone needs access to the limitless possibilities it provides. Little Sun is opening doors to these possibilities, one sustainable lamp at a time.”