Until 5th January 2020, Tate Modern invites you to become more aware of your senses in an exhibition that focuses on experience. Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson has spent the past thirty years creating a broad body of work, which includes sculpture, photography and installation. By using a variety of materials from metal and cardboard to water and moss, Eliasson explores how people view the world around them whilst also emphasising his concern about nature and climate change, and experimenting with geometric shapes.
Ólafur Elíasson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1967 to Icelandic Parents Elías Hjörleifsson and Ingibjörg Olafsdorrir. After his parents split up when he was eight years old, Elíasson spent the majority of his time in Denmark with his mother and step-father and his summers with his father in Iceland. His experiences in Iceland, particularly the effects climate change are having on the landscape, have inspired many of his artworks.
Elíasson took part in his first public exhibition at the age of 15, where he displayed landscape drawings and paintings in a small gallery in Denmark. Between 1989 and 1995, he studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, during which time he was awarded the opportunity to travel to New York to work as a studio assistant for the artist Christian Eckhart. In 1993, he had his first solo exhibition in Cologne then, after receiving his degree, Elíasson moved to Berlin where he set up his studio.
In 1996, Elíasson teamed up with Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), an Icelandic artist with an interest in geometric shapes and structures. Together, using Thorsteinn’s knowledge of geometry and space and Elíasson’s artistic skill, they worked on several projects. Tate Modern displays around 450 models, prototypes and geometric studies in a giant glass case at the beginning of the exhibition. They have been made from a variety of materials, including copper wire, cardboard, paper, wood, foam and rubber. One model had even been constructed with Lego.
Whilst all these models in the first room are only prototypes and ideas, there is a completed work later in the exhibition. Made from stainless steel mirrors, Your Spiral View (2002) is a short tunnel that visitors are welcome to walk through. The geometric shape of the construction obscures the reflection in the mirrors making it impossible to recognise yourself as you walk through the tunnel. Instead of seeing themselves, visitors are met with a kaleidoscope of colour and light.
Elíasson has collaborated with other people for many projects. As well as Thorsteinn, he has worked with architects Sebastian Behmann, Cedric Price (1934-2003), Kjetil Thorsen (b.1958), the novelist Svend Åge Madsen (b.1939) and the landscapist Gunther Vogt. Each person brings something unique to the project, whether it be practical ideas, imagination or an alternative opinion. In his studio, Studio Olafur Eliasson, Elíasson employs over thirty architects, engineers, craftsmen and artist assistants to research and work together on installations, sculptures and large scale commissions.
As well as producing art, Elíasson is a professor at the Berlin Univeristy of the Arts. He has won prizes, such as the Nykredit Architecture Prize (2004), Eckersberg Medal (2004), Prince Eugen Medal (2005), Joan Miró Prize (2007), a Quadriga award (2010) and the Mies van der Rohe Award (2013). Elíasson even had the honour of welcoming the President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (b.1943) to his studio in 2014 as part of the President’s state visit to Germany.
Elíasson’s most recent achievement was being appointed a Goodwill Ambassador earlier this year by the United Nations Development Programme. He aims to advocate for action on climate change and sustainability and emphasises the need to stay positive about the future: “I also think it’s important not to lose sight of what is actually going quite well. There is reason for hope. I believe in hope as such and I’m generally a positive person. And when you think about it: it has never been better to be a young African girl, for instance.” Elíasson lives in Hellerup, Denmark, from which he commutes to his studio in Berlin, with his wife Marianne Krogh Jensen and their adopted children from Ethiopia.
The Model Room leads on to a selection of Elíasson’s early works produced during the 1990s. Visitors are greeted by an entire wall covered in Scandinavian reindeer lichen, a replica of Moss Wall, which Elíasson first created in 1994. Held together with wood and wire, the installation brings unexpected material from the wild outside to the controlled indoor space. Visitors are also drawn to Window Projection, which Elíasson made at art school. A bright light shines the silhouette of a window onto a white wall and not many people can resist making shadow puppets, thus adding to the artwork.
Elíasson uses light in simple ways, for instance, a single spotlight in a darkened room. Titled Wannabee, visitors complete the artwork by standing under the light and posing while their friends take photographs. In a corner, I grew up in solitude and silence consists of a single white candle on a round mirror. Without using any form of electricity, the candle uses the mirror to reflect its light further than a single flame could manage.
These early works reveal Elíasson’s interest in nature and weather, for instance, the perpetual “rain” running down the Regenfenster (Rain Window). Incorporated into an actual window of Tate Modern, visitors do what many people do on a rainy day – watch as the droplets travel from top to bottom. Many of the nature-based installations are based on the artist’s observations in Iceland. Wave machine, for example, replicates the gentle movements of Icelandic waters.
Beauty (1993) combines nature and illumination to produce a fine sheet of rain in the centre of a darkened room. Most people consider rain to be an inconvenience, however, Elíasson appreciates the beauty it can create.
“A rainbow is an alliance: solar gleam, errant cloud, waterdrops in motion, captivated human, changed world.”
The light shining on the falling water produces a rainbow effect. By studying nature and the rainbow phenomenon, Elíasson has artificially produced his own, which, as he said himself, captivates the human mind. Visitors stand around either staring in awe or taking photos in a hushed environment. Yet, if they think Beauty is amazing, they will soon be blown away when they find Din Blinde Passager (Your Blind Passenger) around the corner.
Imagine the thickest fog you have ever seen then multiply it by ten; there you have Din blinde passager. The installation is a 39-metre long room filled with artificial fog and it is only possible to see 1.5 metres ahead. Made from water-soluble fog fluid containing non-toxic polyols (a type of sweetener), Elíasson recreates a spooky natural phenomenon that warps the surrounding world – or even makes it disappear entirely.
Walking through Din Blinde passager is an adventure like none other. It relies on trust – trust in the artist, trust in those around you, and trust that nothing is hiding in the fog. Fluorescent lamps change the colour of the white fog along the way, heightening the experience. Whilst the fog turns everyone into a “blind passenger”, the changes in colour help visitors gradually make their way through the passage.
Installations such as this evoke the question “what is art?” Usually, art is something visible, regardless as to whether it appeals to the viewer. Elíasson’s interpretation of art, however, relies on experience just as much as sight, or more so in this case. He makes people aware of themselves, their bodies and the people around them. Without the fog, people would walk from one side of the room to the other without passing a single thought about what they were doing, yet, in the fog, people are far more aware.
From the gloom of the fog, visitors emerge into a room full of colourful reflections. Elíasson has been fascinated with kaleidoscopes since the mid-1990s, which coincided with his love of geometric shapes. He continues to explore these ideas in his recent work In Real Life, which lights up the room with multiple reflections of fractured colours. Made from aluminium, the large sphere is fitted with colour-effect filter glass and hangs from the ceiling. Inside, an LED light shines the green, yellow, orange, red, pink and cyan shades onto the walls, ceilings and anyone in the vicinity. Without the light, the sphere would hang alone, purposeless, however, with the light, it expends its energy, dissolving the boundaries between artwork, location and spectator.
Continuing along the kaleidoscope theme, Elíasson incorporates the outside world into his art in Your Planetary Window (2019), which distorts the view from the second floor of Tate Modern. Geometric mirrors reflect the London scene whilst breaking it into many fragments, almost as though someone has smashed the world into sharp fragments.
Elíasson endeavours to incorporate the outside world in many of his artworks. Being particularly concerned about the rate of climate change, he uses his creativity to make people aware of the state of the world. Intended as a call for action against the climate change emergency, Elíasson often uses glacial ice in his work. Some may recall seeing several blocks of ice outside Tate Britain in 2018. These were blocks that had been fished out of of the water surrounding Greenland and brought to London so that thousands of people could see the damage the warmer climate is causing the Arctic. Greenland loses between 200 to 300 tonnes of glacial ice every year and, like these ice blocks that gradually melted in London temperatures, they can never be reclaimed.
One of Elíasson’s recent artworks, The presence of absence pavilion (2019), illustrates the loss of the glaciers. A bronze cast shows the shape made by a block of ice that has now inevitably melted. This is the space created through the loss of one block of ice; imagine the size of the space if all the glaciers melted. This is something Elíasson has gradually documented over the past twenty years through a series of photographs he took in Iceland.
Travelling back and forth between his parents’ homes, Elíasson spent a lot of time in Iceland. Over the years, he has witnessed first-hand the destruction of the glaciers due to global warming. In 1999, Elíasson photographed the receding glaciers across Iceland. In these images, it is possible to see where the ice had once been, however, they are not as shocking as the photographs taken this year. Elíasson returned to the same sites as his earlier photographs and recorded what the glaciers look like now. Displayed next to each other in the gallery, the changes to the landscape are obvious. Hoping to stir the emotions of the viewer, Elíasson is emphasising the importance of acting now before it is too late.
Around one-third of the exhibits rely on an audience to make the artwork complete. This is part of Elíasson’s attempt to make people more aware of themselves and their surroundings. Used in advertising for the exhibition, Your Uncertain Shadow (colour) proved to be popular with the majority of visitors. Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide (HMI) lamps light up the far wall of one of the rooms, which everyone must walk in front of to reach the next section. Rather than a simple shadow showing up on the wall when someone blocks the light source, four shadows appear instead, each one a different colour. Green, orange, blue and magenta human shapes are reflected on the wall, overlapping each other to create a rainbow of colours.
Seeing a shadow is not a new thing, they appear wherever there is a light source. Seeing multiple shadows in different colours, however, has a vastly different effect. Just as humans are captivated by rainbows in the sky, visitors spend several minutes making shapes on the wall, fully aware of their bodies. The presence of other people in the room is also taken into consideration as their shadows merge into others, making their way from one doorway to the next.
How do we live together? That is what one room-sized exhibit asks. There is no answer but, if the behaviour of the visitors is anything to go by, it may have something to do with staring at the ceiling. A foil mirror stretches from corner to corner of the ceiling, reflecting everything on the ground below. A black stainless steel upside-down arch joins the floor to the ceiling, creating the illusion of a full circle in the mirror. There is no explanation; there are no instructions, yet everyone stares at their reflection. Some people go as far as lying on the floor, meditatively staring up at the ceiling.
Big Bang Fountain is equally ambiguous in meaning. Every couple of seconds, water gushes out of a hole in the centre of a table, however, it can only be viewed for a split second at a time – blink and you miss it. The pitch-black room is lit with a quick flash from a strobe light, briefly revealing the fountain to the viewer. The quickness of the flash makes the fountain appear to be stationary, taking on a different shape each time. The experience is unique to each individual; whilst there may be several people in the room, each person views the fountain from a different angle, therefore, the shape the water forms in the brief flash of light is different for everybody.
The final room of the exhibition, the “expanded studio”, reveals Elíasson’s thought processes behind the artworks. As well as producing art, Elíasson’s studio has expanded by collaborating with other professionals to produce public sculptures, work on architectural projects, choreograph dances, and publish a cookbook. His architectural studio, known as Studio Other Space, focuses on addressing issues the world is facing today, for instance, climate change.
A room-length pin-board shows the research, ideas and goals of the studio. Replicating the boards in the real studio, Elíasson shares images, articles, newspaper clippings, and random thoughts organised in alphabetical order around keywords, for instance, Rainbow, Trust and Uncertainty.
A couple of videos explain a few of the recent projects undertaken by Studio Other Space. In 2012, Elíasson launched Little Suns, a project to raise awareness of the importance of access to clean energy. Elíasson and his studio designed solar-powered lamps and have distributed more than 800,000 of them around the world. Little Suns provides light to places off the electricity grid and cuts down the use of fossil fuels.
To end the exhibition, The Structural evolution project, first staged in 2001, allows visitors to collaborate by building, adding to and rebuilding structures and shapes from Zometool sticks and connectors. Similar to children’s construction toys, the project allows everyone of all ages to be creative, work alone or together and enjoy the process.
If the artwork in the exhibition is not enough, there are a couple of installations elsewhere in the Tate grounds. This includes a waterfall, lights that make everything appear monochrome, an electric fan dangerously swinging from the ceiling and a geometrical sphere called Stardust Particle. Elíasson’s studio has also teamed up with Tate Eats to provide soups, salads, bread and cakes based on the studio’s cookbook.
Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is due to close on 5th January 2020, so make sure you visit soon. Tickets are £18 for adults, £5 for 12-18 years olds and free for under 12s.
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Thank you once again Hazel for an amazing tour of an exhibition. You have made it come alive. Something really different.
Hazel, you are so talented. A really interesting article with helpful photos to illustrate the points made. His art certainly captures the imagination and you have captured the vitality of the exhibition. Thank you for sharing .