10 Fascinating TED Talks by Contemporary Artists


Hearing artists talk about their work can be fascinating. If they’ve been invited to speak at TED, you know it’s going to be amazing. Come see. Get close. Go deeper. From the poignant, political motivations behind JR’s giant face wheat-paste explained by the giddy, charming street artist himself, to Theo Jansen narrating the inner-workings of his intelligent kinetic sculpture-animals, to Miru Kim talking about urban exploring in the buff, there have been some very interesting talks. Here are some of our favorites.


French street artist JR is known for wheat-pasting giant, monochrome portraits of regular people. His canvas is the world — from the wall separating the Gaza Strip to the billboards of Soho, New York. In his talk, he discusses “turning the world inside out” through art and letting it change your perceptions. It’s a fantastic look into the emotionally, culturally loaded implications of his simple work.

Taryn Simon

Artist Taryn Simon’s investigatory photography projects exhibit her deep feelings for and unprecedented access to some of the world’s most protected sites. See her talk about wanting to “snip” the Transatlantic Cable and why getting inside the secret worlds of Disneyland Parks is tougher than going to photograph Hamas leaders.

Theo Jansen

Brilliant artist Theo Jansen constructs kinetic sculptures from light tubes and bits of plastic. They are nearly intelligent beasts, walking around the desert by themselves, responding to the terrain, feeling and knowing to avoid the sea, storing energy from wind via plastic bottle “gills.” It is all utterly mesmerizing and surreal. Let Jansen explain to you just how he engineers them.

Miru Kim

Notorious for her series of nude self-portraits shot in the hidden urban caverns of the world’s metropolises, Miru Kim explains how her fascination with anatomy and dissecting animals led her to join up with urban explorers and relate to New York city rats.

Edward Burtynsky

Canadian artist and fine art photographer Edward Burtynsky talks about his project Manufactured Landscapes, a mind-blowing series documenting the man-made landscape — industrial incursions in the land, gaping mines, factory rows after rows after rows after rows, wastelands, and junk piles. The size and scale of these things have never been presented this accurately before.

Shirin Neshat

“Every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political. Politics have defined our lives,” says artist Shirin Neshat. In this timely and very relevant talk, Neshat explains the paradox of a political artist in exile, of playing messenger to the men and women trapped within the oppressive existence of Iran while being lonely on the outside of the conflict. She argues that art should not be mere entertainment and relates Islamic culture to her work and place in the world.

Tom Shannon

This intimate TED talk talks place inside of Tom Shannon’s studio, where he explains how his wire-suspended and “levitating” sculptures harness the powers of magnetism and gravity. He is also affected by the onset of Parkinson’s, and talks about its impact on his work. The live demonstration of a remote controlled pendulum making paintings alone is worth taking a look.

Vik Muniz

Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based fine artist Vik Muniz is amazingly nifty with an incredible array of materials. He talks about creating shaded landscapes with yarn, Monet bit maps, The Last Supper out of chocolate, and praying-hand-shaped clouds from cotton. Also, some of the funniest conceptual sculptures ever made, like a “pre-Columbian coffeemaker” and a rocking podium. There are a lot of a-has and ha-has in this one.

Maira Kalman

New Yorker-favorite, illustrator Maira Kalman talks about how her life has influenced her work. Anecdotes of her process — like commissioning a composer to serenade her while she draws or visiting a subject in St. Petersburg’s Museum of Hygiene — reveal an art world to which few have access. Also, she’s delightfully fretful and funny, even while she talks illustrating victims of the Stalin regime.

Willard Wigan

Willard Wigan makes work so tiny that you can only see it with a microscope. It’s incredible to watch him describe how he shapes a house out of a fiber pulled from his sister’s teddy bear by slowing down his nervous system and poking it with a sharpened needlepoint between his heartbeats. Or trying not to inhale his one of his micro-sculptures. (Again.)