Olafur Eliasson Debuts New Lake Michigan-Inspired Cultural Landmark at Willis Tower

By Ginny Van Alyea

We haven't been out much yet this year, but we were glad to hear this week that CNL Projects has curated the globally renowned artist Olafur Eliasson’s stunning installation, Atmospheric wave wall, on the Jackson Blvd. exterior wall of Willis Tower. We have a new work of public art to visit and enjoy for years to come. 

CNL's founder, curator Cortney Lederer, said that after three years, this incredible project is finally being shared with the public it was intended for. Lederer shared, "Atmospheric wave wall uniquely contributes to the city’s collection of public art and provides a safe and accessible opportunity for folks to experience the work in person. For me, given the isolating and ongoing, challenging year we have been living, connecting to art outside the current virtual landscape we have had to rely on is incredibly meaningful and deeply valuable."

True to Eliasson’s style – and fitting for the times we live in – the sculpture creates a dynamic experience that is activated by the motion of people walking, driving or biking past; by the motion of the earth in relation to the sun as light moves across it; and by changes in the season and weather. This beautifully massive piece, which took approximately eight weeks to complete, measures roughly 30’ x 60’ and covers the exterior Jackson Blvd. wall with a pattern of 1,963 metal tiles. The pattern is based on Penrose tiling, an approach discovered by mathematician and physicist Sir Roger Penrose in the 1970s that produces a system of non-periodic tiling that is based on five-fold symmetry.

Each tile is curved, like a fragment of the inner surface of a sphere, and the main blue, deep green and white tones were inspired by the surfaces of nearby Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. The concave shapes and colors of the tiles produce a dynamic effect when visitors walk around it. Seen from certain angles, the pattern reveals a vortex that seems to twist and accelerate in response to viewers’ movements. The powder-coated steel catches the light of the sun, and the concave surfaces collect shadows that shift as the day progresses. At night, the piece is lit from behind so flashes of light escape through the interstices between the tiles. As viewers move, the pattern of light appears to move with them, revealing the underlying geometry of the work and creating a captivating effect that activates the street around the building at night, attracting visitors at all hours.

EQ Office, the landlord for Willis Tower, selected Eliasson given his international reputation and his emphasis on the environment, climate and humans’ relationship with nature. Eliasson was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Program in 2019, and the artist's work and philosophy align with EQ’s efforts to preserve the environment and local culture -- top priorities for the redevelopment of Willis Tower.

“Our vision is to create workplace destinations, like Willis Tower, that truly energize and inspire people and enhance the vibrancy of our downtown work homes,” said David Moore, Senior Vice President, Portfolio Director at EQ Office. “Art brings beauty and spurs imagination, and it is part of our unique offering that we curate for our customers and visitors. Eliasson’s approachable installation is intertwined with the infrastructure and architecture of the building, further establishing Willis Tower as a hub forcommunity, inspiration and creativity.”

“It was a great pleasure for me to create a work of art specifically for Willis Tower and for Chicago,” said Eliasson. “Inspired by the unpredictable weather that I witnessed stirring up the surface of Lake Michigan, Atmospheric wave wall appears to change according to your position and to the time of day and year. What we see depends on our point of view: understanding this is an important step toward realizing that we can change reality. It is my hope that this subtle intervention can make a positive contribution to the building and to the local community by reflecting the complex activity all around us, the invisible interactions and minute fluctuations that make up our shared public space.”

EQ’s art initiative at Willis Tower, Art of the Neighborhood, brings the redevelopment vision to life by fostering ongoing arts and culture programming that invites tenants and visitors to socialize and further creates a sense of community in the Chicago Loop. Atmospheric wave wall is the latest addition to the program following the July 2019 installation of In the Heart of this Infinite Particle of Galactic Dust by Jacob Hashimoto. EQ worked with curator CNL Projects to commission this piece.

“Chicago is home to some of the world’s most iconic and beloved public art, so it is a thrill to welcome this new installation by renowned artist Olafur Eliasson to the downtown landscape,” said Mark Kelly, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “Inspired by our own Lake Michigan, Atmospheric wave wall will entice and engage residents and visitors alike—sparking much needed delight in our shared public spaces.”

Eliasson is a Berlin-based, Danish-Icelandic artist driven by his interests in perception, movement, embodied experience and feelings of self. His works span sculpture, painting, photography, film and installation and he has held numerous major exhibitions around the world while also engaging the public through architectural projects, interventions in civic space, arts education, policymaking and issues of sustainability and climate change.