Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life at Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life at Tate Modern


The Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson needs a big canvas for his installations, and Tate Gallery’s new-ish extension has space a-plenty to accommodate his immersive and topical works. Fifteen years ago he packed them in at the Turbine Hall with his Weather Project, which was dominated by a giant sun, with clouds of fine mist and a reflective ceiling, which had an oddly calming effect on the two million or so visitors. Last winter, he dumped a number of icebergs outside Tate Modern from the ‘Nuup Kangerlua’ fjord in Greenland, as a visual and tactile demonstration of climate change. Visitors were encouraged to touch, climb on and listen to the blocks of compressed snow, some weighing up to 6 tonnes, as they slowly melted. The air trapped in the bubbles in the ice could have been anything from 10,000 years old, and contain half the CO² we breathe today. He spent some considerable time in Iceland as a child, and the natural world of mist, water, light and ice have been at the centre of his artistic focus for the past three decades.

Outside the Blavatnik Building, there is an 11-metre-high skeletal waterfall, made of scaffolding, pumps and hoses, which has an unsurprising ‘so what’ effect, and did not bode well for what was inside. Thankfully, there are enough exhibits to keep one occupied, amused and questioning, like the 20-metre long curtain of Scandanavian reindeer lichen some 11-meters high, which one can smell and touch; this makes a change from most sculpture shows. An even longer exhibit, Din Blinde Passager (“Your blind passenger”) is a 40-metre corridor filled with dense fog, so that one can barely see one’s hand in front of one’s face, which is both visceral and disturbing.

Eliasson plays with optics, kaleidoscope, reflections, inversions of images, and projections. One work, ‘Big Bang Fountain’, has a squirt of water in a totally blacked-out chamber, lit at a few seconds interval by a strobe light, which freezes it into a beautiful piece of sculpted ice, crystal or quicksilver. In ‘Beauty’, it is raining in the gallery, complete with shimmering rainbows, while a window looking out towards ‘Waterfall’, is spattered with raindrops, even though it is a warm and sunny day outside. This playful element is present in another chamber, ‘Your Uncertain Shadow’, while this time it is the visitors themselves who are projected shadows from coloured lights mounted at floor level. The joy of these works lies in their sheer simplicity, although there are also highly elaborate pieces, with a flagrant use of precision engineering, optics and mirrors, like “Your Spiral View” and “Cold Wind Sphere”  which do very little, bangs-for-bucks-wise, for the amount of time, materials and money they would have soaked up. There is no questioning the integrity of the man, with his climate change campaign, “Ice Watch”, and there is a pervasive feeling of worthiness in many of the works. His idea of didactics through participative and collaborative activities, all under the umbrella of ‘art’, is almost a lone voice in the greed and hyperbole of the contemporary art scene. With “Ice Watch”, by making abstract facts tangible, Eliasson hoped that the artwork had the potential to turn climate knowledge into climate action, in a way that news images cannot. I recall going to an exhibition in a creaking warehouse in Hamburg twenty years ago about “The Titanic”, where the floors were all sloping progressively uphill as one made one’s way to a gigantic wall of ice. Once there, the interactive effect of placing one’s hand on the ice was startling, as one watched one’s handprint melt into the ice.

The exhibition opens with Model room 2003, an enormous vitrine filled with a jumble of 450 models, prototypes, spheres, hemispheres, mobius strips, spirals, geodesic domes and pyramids, to demonstrate his interest in mathematics and science and how he collaborated with the Icelandic artist, mathematician and architect Einar Thorsteinn, who died in 2015. The exhibition sprawls over the first floor galleries, with around 40 works, many of which have never been seen in the UK before, including some that were created for the Tate show, which moves to Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in February 2020. The final space is occupied by The Expanded Studio, which explores his involvement with social and environmental issues. In collaboration with Tate Modern, SOE Kitchen has produced its own menu for visitors to the gallery’s Terrace Bar with ethical, organic, vegetarian and locally-sourced meals inspired by the food cooked for his team at his studio in Berlin. Visitors can eat ‘family-style’ at tables similar to those at the studio, surrounded by artworks, lamps and furniture, which is maybe taking the adulation of this Danish wunderkind a little too far. 


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