It’s Always Sunny in Dnepropetrovsk

Brian Droitcour on Olafur Eliasson at the Interpipe Steel Mill

Left: Dnepropetrovsk sunrise. Right: Artist Olafur Eliasson and collector Victor Pinchuk. (All photos: Brian Droitcour)

OLAFUR ELIASSON has been thinking about steel. “The people who work with steel refer to it as something fluid,” he said. “No one ever referred to steel as something static.” We were in Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial city of a million people in southeastern Ukraine, for the opening ceremony of the Interpipe Steel Mill. Eliasson had contributed five permanent installations to the factory—from a tunnel of elliptical steel arcs at the entrance to a sixty-meter-tall artificial sun—at the behest of Viktor Pinchuk, the founder of Interpipe. The collaboration followed Eliasson’s solo show at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev in spring 2011. His task was to aesthetically articulate the values of the steel mill, to define its purpose for the employees. I tried to think of analogous situations where a visionary figure was enlisted to transform an industrial site and only came up with Zaha Hadid’s BMW plant in Leipzig. “Hadid communicated BMW to the outside,” Eliasson said. “Here it’s more about what’s going on inside.”

Interpipe Steel’s art can’t vie with its economic impact for significance. There were relatively few people with art-world connections there for the opening—the Pinchuk Art Centre’s staff, we writers who had been flown in at the Centre’s expense, Eliasson’s studio employees—among hundreds of businessmen and functionaries, including former presidents of Poland and Ukraine and ambassadors to Ukraine from the United States, Britain, and France. As we waited in the hangarlike temporary pavilion for current Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to arrive, animated text spun on the screens to announce Interpipe’s achievements: a $700 million investment, the first new factory built from scratch in Ukraine since it became an independent country in 1991, a creator of seven hundred new jobs.

“The future is made of steel,” Yanukovich announced in his brief address. Pinchuk thanked his mother for advising him to major in pipe rolling at the Dnepropetrovsk Metallurgical Institute, and mentioned that his first job had been at the defunct steel mill on the lot next to Interpipe. “Steel is a friend to us,” said Gianpietro Benedetti of Danieli, the Italian engineering company that designed the mill. “The house, the train, the building—everything is in steel.” The speeches were followed by a surprise performance by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, whose attendance impressed me more than Yanukovich’s did. They played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Denis Matsuev, and Ravel’s Bolero, which Pinchuk introduced with an anecdote from the composer’s letters: Ravel had been inspired to write it by the sight of factory smokestacks. The concert ended with the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, featuring the Mariinsky’s operatic choir. “I’m going to demand a choir for every project now,” Eliasson joked later.

Left: Pinchuk Art Center artistic manager Björn Geldof and Olafur Eliasson studio manager Caroline Egel. Right: Pinchuk Art Centre director Eckhard Schneider and Interpipe Steel Mill deputy director Vladimir Yerak.

My British colleagues in the press pool were eager to see the welding of culture to industry as a throwback to Soviet times, when new factories were consecrated with monumental murals. To me, contemporary art’s involvement in the economic renewal of eastern Ukraine signaled the inexorable expansion of neoliberalism. But as Matsuev hammered out Tchaikovsky’s ponderous chords I realized that Interpipe offered an ideological cocktail, a blend of two diluted tinctures of modernist utopia.

We’ve all seen contemporary art installed in abandoned and repurposed factories; it was novel to see it gracing a newly operational one. Pinchuk spoke of art as “one of the tools of modernization and acceleration.” In Ukraine, at least, it shares the toolbox with manufacturing. The way Eliasson talked about steel—a fluid energy in constant motion—implicitly rebranded a cornerstone of Soviet heavy industry with the liquidity valued in information-age economies.

His vision of steel was compelling but it strained belief inside the plant, where the oppressive heat, the noise, the smoke, and the sluggish movements of gigantic machines made steel seem solid after all. Though Eliasson said he’d been given total artistic freedom—he even demanded it as a condition of his involvement—I thought the scale and the quotidian needs of factory life overpowered the elfin lightness that I’ve come to associate with his work. Your time tunnel, the portal of elliptical arcs at the plant’s entrance, comes to an abrupt stop at the metal grate of the security checkpoint. Inside, a tall wall was filled by Material is movement, a tower of mirrors that suggested falling drops of mercury. Light caught in the rectilinear lines of the panes that composed the round wholes, interrupting their fluid continuity.

Left: Victor Pinchuk with conductor Valery Gergiev. Right: Workers at the Interpipe Steel Mill.

After dusk, the remaining guests returned to the pavilion for a viewing of Dnepropetrovsk sunrise, the artificial sun. We were treated to drinks and a thematic playlist: “Tequila Sunrise” by the Eagles, “Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles, “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. “What would people think? Do we belong to a cult? We’re meeting at 7 PM to see a sunrise,” Pinchuk said. “It’s only possible with contemporary art and great artists like Olafur Eliasson.” A choir of boys and girls, dressed in approximations of Soviet school uniforms, appeared on stage to sing “May There Always Be Sunshine,” a popular children’s song from the 1960s. As they finished, the curtains on the pavilion’s east wall parted to reveal the sun.

Dnepropetrovsk sunrise is somewhat larger than the sun that Eliasson placed outside a factory in Utrecht in 1999, and it has not one face but two. One elliptical disc faced the factory; the other faced downtown Dnepropetrovsk across the river. Our gaze from the pavilion was bluntly greeted by the band of corrugated steel that joined them. The work isn’t supposed to be an illusion, Eliasson said—but the magnificence of the real sun is in the impossibility of seeing the source of its radiance. A buffet reception was held at a restaurant on the hillside on the opposite bank of the Dniepr, with a remote view. Toward the party’s end I went down to the riverfront promenade. A handful of locals were out for an evening stroll. They stopped, pointed, and marveled at the glowing body that was bigger than a streetlamp, lower than the moon.