Artist and engineer light homes with tiny suns

When art and science combine, not only can the result provoke thought, it can also produce action. Case in point: the Little Sun project, which aims to deliver light to areas in need through the distribution of small solar-powered lamps, developed through a collaboration between engineer Frederik Ottesen and artist Olafur Eliasson.

The 12-cm, 120-g light can be charged by sunlight throughout the day, and then used at night in the home for studying or cooking, for example, or to allow businesses to remain open later in the evening. Exposing the solar panel to five hours of sunlight provides at least three hours of bright light, or it can run for longer at a lower brightness, according to the Little Sun site, which also provides more-detailed product specs.

Little sun

Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun, 2012. Photograph: Studio Olafur Eliasson. All images courtesy of Little Sun.

Little sun

Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun, 2012. Photograph: Studio Olafur Eliasson.

“Life and light are actually inseparable, and for some time now, I have wanted to work not just with light in museums and exhibitions, but to do something where I use light in a more ambitious way that is integrated into the world,” said Eliasson, who is also a professor at Berlin University of the Arts, in an artist statement about the project.

The goal of Little Sun is to bring affordable light to people in “off-grid” areas, who do not have adequate access to electricity, according to the site. Their hope is to replace the use of other light sources such as kerosene, which is both more expensive and can cause adverse health effects.

Little sun shop

Little Sun shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph: Michael Tsegaye, 2012.

They’re using a two-tiered pricing approach: People in areas with adequate electricity pay more — about 20 euros — for one of the lamps, which allows those in underserved areas to buy the lamps at a reduced price. The project also sets up local distribution channels and joins with art museums and other institutions to raise funds and awareness.

“An artwork is never just the object; it is also the experience and its contextual impact, how it is used and enjoyed, and how it raises questions and changes ways of thinking and living,” said Eliasson. “The same is true of Little Sun. The solar-powered light and the activities it enables are just one element of the artwork — equally important is the way it connects us and what it tells us about the current state of energy access.”

Little suns at night

Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun, 2012. Photograph: Merklit Mersha.

Little Sun was initially launched at Tate Modern as part of the London 2012 Festival, and new projects with the little lamps, including exhibits and films, are underway. You can also learn about Eliasson’s other work on his website.


Nicole is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.

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