Exhibition Review: Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life, Tate Modern, London

It’s been 16 years since Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project shone light upon the Tate Modern’s turbine hall. A marvellous artist’s impression of the sun employing a semi-circular screen, a ceiling of mirrors, and artificial mist to create the illusion of the sun.

I still remember that installation, encouraged to sit and lay down on the floor of the turbine hall as if I was catching the sun on the beach. It was equally glorious as it was enlightening, and admittedly it is one of few installations that have impacted me in such a way that I can to this day recall the joy and warmth that I experienced when I saw it in 2003. And that truly is the beauty and the blessing of Olafur Eliasson’s artworks, as such multi-sensory experiences leave a lasting impression that is both positive and uplifting, and where necessary inspires action.

Now the Icelandic-Danish artist is back at the Tate Modern with In Real Life, bringing together more than 40 works of art made between 1990 to date that includes immersive installations, sculptures, photography and paintings. At the very crux of In Real Life is that which the artist holds dear in his heart – nature, community and sustainability.

Growing up in Iceland and Denmark where nature is a natural part of people’s everyday existence, Olafur Eliasson’s artworks seek as much to reconnect visitors to nature itself as they do to highlight environmental concerns and to educate. Having lived in a town in Denmark where electricity would stop in the evenings to conserve energy and having experienced the Midnight Sun in Iceland, where the sun almost never sets during the summer, it is easy to see why colour, light and sensory experience plays such a significant role in Olafur Eliasson’s work.

In fact the light spectacle begins as soon as you take the lift from the ground floor of the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building to the exhibition. Yellow mono-frequency lights descend upon visitors as you enter the lift and continue into the hallway of the second floor before you reach the entrance.

The yellow light – a common colour used throughout Olafur Eliasson’s work – in the case of Room for one colour (1997) aims to reduce the viewer’s colour palette to shades of yellow, grey and black, while accentuating finer details that you may not otherwise pick up on under different lighting. The yellow lights themselves are actually common street lamps in some countries, which when viewed indoors amplify the yellow colour.

Throughout In Real Life, Olafur Eliasson uses reflections, inversions, after-images and shifting colours to play with the way viewers perceive and interact with their environment. The multi-sensory, Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) (2010), uses light and fog to take viewers on a journey into the “unknown“. One of the highlights of In Real Life, Din blinde passager is a 39-metre long corridor full of dense fog.

Greeted by fog with visibility at just 1.5 metres, Din blinde passager encourages you to use more than your five senses to navigate the long corridor. Walking at a slow pace through the corridor, there were people ahead of me which made it easy to walk through, but I suddenly decided to shift my path to the left and stop so that the people behind me could go ahead. There I waited so that I could no longer see anyone in front of me, and put my trust in all of my psychic senses to intuitively navigate me through the remaining path of the corridor. I especially liked it when the colour in the corridor shifted from yellow to blue and then to a purple hue like navigating an aura.

Another colour and light spectacle Your uncertain shadow (2010) made for a playful setting where you could strike a pose or even bust some moves as they cast colourful shadows on the wall before you. From an artist, who also happens to have a past in breakdancing, you could visualise how much fun Olafur Eliasson must have had creating Your uncertain shadow.

The elements have a strong presence throughout In Real Life, water especially. The first encounter with the water element is in fact outside the Tate Modern where Waterfall – a 11-metre-high scaffolding structure with water cascading over its surface – greets visitors. Then there’s Wavemachines, one of Olafur Eliasson’s earlier works from 1995, featuring a series of motors that send small waves rippling through shallow pools of water. And a water finale as it were, The Big Bang Fountain (2014) is a fountain in a darkened room that only becomes visible when a strobe light briefly hits the water at its highest point.

Moss wall – a 20-metre wall covered with reindeer moss – from 1994 offers a graceful representation of the Earth elemental. The slow-growing sponge-like lichen, native to Scandinavia, has been woven into a wire mesh. As the lichen dries, it shrinks and fades, and when the installation is watered, the moss expands, changes colour, and fills the space with its earthy scent.

Olafur Eliasson is also inspired by geometry as evident in the Model room (2003), which brings together around 450 models, prototypes, and geometrical studies of various sizes. Geometric shapes are also explored in Your spiral view (2002) – a giant kaleidoscopic tunnel, made from mirrors, that you can walk through.

The artist has most certainly mastered creative ways in which to engage people in global issues, most notably climate change. Last year, Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing installed Ice Watch – a group of 24 blocks of polar ice which were fished out of the Wuup Kangerlua Fjord in Greenland after becoming detached from the ice sheet – in front of the Tate Modern. The temporary sculpture, which took around a week to completely melt, was designed to help people understand the reality of climate change and the sense of urgency.

In continuation of his environmental awareness-raising artworks, a series of photographs of Iceland’s glaciers taken in 1999, entitled The glacier series, sits alongside newer photographs at the In Real Life exhibition, detailing the changes to the landscape in recent years.

Moving towards the final room in the exhibition, a dedicated space known as The Expanded Studio has been created to provide visitors with the opportunity to learn more about climate change and to gain further insight into Olafur Eliasson’s engagement in social and environmental issues such as Little Sun, which provides solar-powered lamps and chargers to communities without access to electricity, and Green light an artistic workshop, in which asylum seekers and refugees, together with members of the public, constructed Green light lamps.

This learning space provides a perfect ending to an inspirational exhibition, leaving visitors motivated to take action in their lives where climate change is concerned, something that Olafur Eliasson, like with last year’s Ice Watch, does so effectively and imaginatively.

In Real Life is currently on at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 until 5 January 2020

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyles including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com

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