Olafur Eliasson: ‘In real life’ at Tate Modern, London

Chris Fordham writes:

Light has played an important role in art over the ages, all the way from Caravaggio; famous for his use of contrast for the sake of drama, to contemporary artists Dan Flavin and James Turrell, the later believing that “Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.” There is certainly a huge crossover between what we do as lighting designers and Art, and much that can be taken away from this show – ‘In real life’.

The Weather Project

This exhibition brings together nearly 40 works, some created specifically for the exhibition, others from the past three decades. Its aim is not just to provide a quick hit of selfie and Instagram gratification, but to draw attention to some of the world’s most serious environmental issues. Eliasson is best known in the UK for his ‘Weather Project’ installation shown at the Turbine Hall in 2003, which turned out to be one of the most popular art installations in the Tate Modern’s history. Since that date, sea levels have risen by 5cm, and CO² levels have surpassed 400 parts per million, a dramatic example of how we are affecting our world.

Taking the lift up to the exhibition, you arrive in a ‘Room for one colour‘; a space lit completely in mono-chromatic yellow SOX lamps, both overpowering, and slightly unpleasant . . . but, at least, these outdated lamps have achieved a second life, so to speak.

Olafur Eliasson, Room for one colour 1997. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

In direct contrast to the lift corridor and prior to entering the main exhibition you can relish in the visual beauty of ‘Stardust particle’. It was created in 2014 and is made from stainless steel, translucent mirror-filter dichroic glass, wire motor and highlighted by a spotlight. The effect is ethereal. Looking closely at the projection on the wall, the image blurs around the edges, and the mirror glass gives a subtle bleed of colour, the longer you look the more you perceive.

Olafur Eliasson, Stardust particle 2014. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The first room contains a large collection of geometric experiments, from Eliasson’s collaboration with his studio team and, notably, Icelandic artist, mathematician and architect Einar Thorsteinn (1942–2015). You can see in these (if you look carefully – it’s a bit of a jumble) some of the influences that have led him to his latest pendant for Louis Poulsen, the QE Quasi light, which comprises of a icosahedron – a 20-sided form with 12 vertices and a 12-sided inner element. These luminaires can be seen in the Tate Modern’s terrace bar.

Olafur Eliasson, Din Blinde Passager 2010.
Photo by Anders Sune Berg

Moving on, you are subject to a great change in perception and feel. As you enter the 39-meter walkway, named Din Blinde Passager (Your  Blind Passenger), where a ‘mist’ thickens and you lose all sensation of the physical space and the people who were just in front of you become a silhouette, then disappear altogether.

The use of light and colour here is great, with the monochromatic orange changing to yellow, blue, purple and white, making your photo receptors work overtime, and adding to your disorientation as you are forced into using your other senses to help you move through the space.

By the way, a great way to ruin the experience is to film it and stare fixedly at your phone throughout. If you can view the exhibit when it’s not so crowded the effect is far better and you can really feel lost in the ‘emptiness’. 

Olafur Eliasson, Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010 Maria del Pilar García Ayensa

Compared to the ‘Your blind passenger’ and ‘Room for one colour’, ‘Your uncertain shadow’ is an much more colorful affair, in which your shadow becomes a blend of polychromatic shapes as you move through the space. This is simply unmissable.

Olafur Eliasson – The big bang fountain

As is ‘The big bang fountain‘; a great piece of light theatre, which instantly gets your mind racing at the visual splendor, no static photo can do this piece justice; you will just have to go and see it if you can.

The overall message that Eliasson wishes to purvey is not lost here; the centre of the exhibtion gives way to a collection of sobering photos showing how much of Iceland’s glaciers have been lost since 1999, set alongside a sculpture of the empty space left where a now vanished lump of ice used to be, ‘The presence Of Absence (2019) ’.

The last room ‘Expanded Studio’ shows a collection of newspaper cuttings and materials, giving an idea of what environmental issues drive his studio’s processes. Here you can find his ‘Little Sun’, a solar powered product which has provided cheap lighting to Africa, where there are now over 830,000 lamps in circulation. The exhibition encourages the viewer to consider their relationship with the natural world and the impact that human behaviour has on it.

You still have time to visit this wonderful exploration of light.

Olafur Eliasson: In real life is at Tate Modern from 11 July 2019 until 5 January 2020. It is curated by Mark Godfrey, Senior Curator, International Art, and Emma Lewis, Assistant Curator, in close collaboration with Studio Olafur Eliasson.

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