Little suns to light up Tate Modern

For the most part, people living in western societies take artificial lighting as part of the habitual nature of things. Electricity isn’t seen as a luxury; for most it’s always been there, unnoticed.
The webs of cables that connect societies are like manmade tree roots, buzzing arteries that power the world and give us the freedom to live our lives as best as we can.
But electricity is indeed a privilege, something that approximately 1.6 billion people around the world do not have direct access to, an astonishing fact when we consider how granted we take it for, especially when it comes to providing us with light.
It’s this misfortune that forms the body of a new project at Tate Modern, which offers visitors a distinct way of experiencing art within the building, while bringing attention to the importance of improving access to and investing in solar energy.
As part of Olafur Eliasson: Little Sun, Tate Modern is to submerge itself in darkness every Saturday for two hours, all the while being open to the public. Visitors will be given specially designed solar-powered lamps in the shape of a sunflower, with which they can enjoy its Surrealist collection in a novel way.
The Surrealism association is important and purposeful. For one, the Tate Modern project creates an ephemeral and dreamlike experience, which was of course fundamental to the movement’s raison d’être. Secondly, it pays homage to the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galérie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which pretty much set the precedent in engaging with art in near blackout.
At this seminal show, Man Ray, one of American’s most famous, prominent and influential Surrealists, in his role as “master of light”, distributed torches for those keen on “seeing” art outside of a conventional space and time. It was very anti-establishment.
As atypical as that might have seemed back then and even today, to engage with art through constricted beams of light, never as a whole, somewhat awkwardly, as if to be constantly struggling to see the full beauty of a complete canvas, it is nevertheless the everyday experience of billions of people.
Sure they’re not looking at art, but for many people, when the sun drops below the horizon, life either grinds to a halt or completely stops until sunrise. Their only resolution to existing in the dark is through kerosene lamps, which are not only ineffective but dangerous and expensive.
Here’s where the Little Sun lamps come in. Though the cute, small objects have a functional purpose in relation to the ability to see Surrealist works of art at Tate Modern, their actual use extends outside of the gallery and hopefully into the homes of those who need it most.
It enables longer working hours and increases productivity; it provides invaluable lighting for children to study and read; it increases commerce by allowing businesses to stay open for longer; it improves safety at work; and it acts as a legitimate alternative to kerosene lamps.
Statistically speaking, it’s quite extraordinary. Five hours of natural sunlight imbues the lamp with the corresponding amount of artificial light, the device has a three-year lifespan, which can then be extended with a new battery – cuts down on obsolescence – and they are incredibly sturdy objects that are hard to break.
As the artist Mr Eliasson and the engineer Frederick Ottensen explain succinctly: “Little Sun is a work of art that works in life.”
It’s a fantastic way of looking at art and its ability to transform lives in a very real way. While a work of art by, say, Salvador Dali might trigger an emotional response that results in an exploration of our psychology, helping us understood our past, our present and our reason for living, Little Sun is more tangible and direct.
It is art that as a concept is more physical than elusive. It’s designed to be disseminated widely, and even if the recipients of these life changing devices don’t understand or appreciate the artistic facet that resulted in the creation of the solar powered lamps, that doesn’t matter. Art needn’t change things so obviously; it’s enough that it makes things happen.
“An artwork is never just the object,” Mr Eliasson told the BBC. “It is also the experience and its contextual impact, how it is used and enjoyed, how it raises questions and changes ways of thinking and living.”
The Tate Modern Blackouts begin on July 28th as part of the London 2012 Festival and will run until September 9th. Olafur Eliasson: Little Sun is on until September 23rd.
Cadogan Tate specialises in the transportation and storage of fine art, delivered through expert art logistics.