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In Real Life: Olafur Eliasson’s Captivating Experiential Artworks

By Chen Yi An

Big bang fountain, 2014 — Situated within a black, confined room, the viewer could hear the splashes of the water but are greeted by cosmic flashes of it immobilised in its sputtering state.
 
Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles © 2014 Olafur Eliasson
Big bang fountain, 2014 — Situated within a black, confined room, the viewer could hear the splashes of the water but are greeted by cosmic flashes of it immobilised in its sputtering state.

Back in 2003, the large cavernous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern was in perpetual sunset, tinged in orange hues and clouded in a dreamy haze. The ceiling was covered in mirrors, doubling in size as viewers laid down on the floor to immerse themselves within the expansive space. Yet, the whole hall resonated with a low electrical hum, exposing the multitude of mono-frequency lamps that made up the main feature of the work — a large yellow semi-disk, reflected by the mirrored ceiling to create a gigantic warm yolk, resembling the sun. 

The artwork was The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, one of the Unilever Series projects in collaboration with Tate Modern — commissioned works that pushed the boundaries of scale and artistry when it comes to exhibiting within the vast confines of the Turbine Hall. What was so spectacular about The Weather Project was how simple of a premise it was, and yet it created new ways of experiencing the space, providing an alternative perspective as to what you would expect of a gallery setting.

Studio Olafur EliassonIn 2003, Olafur Eliasson staged The Weather Project in the confines of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
In 2003, Olafur Eliasson staged The Weather Project in the confines of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

Viewers began to do activities in the Turbine Hall that even Eliasson did not anticipate — people were lying down, rolling around. There were yoga classes and poetry slams. Someone brought an inflatable canoe, and protestors even arranged themselves on the floor to spell “Bush Go Home” when President George Bush visited London (in reverse so it was readable in the mirror — that takes effort).

While introducing the concepts behind his artworks during his TED talk in 2009, Eliasson mentioned that “it makes a difference whether you have a body that feels a part of a space, rather than having a body which is just in front of a picture.”

Herein lies the charm of Olafur Eliasson’s experiential art pieces. By disrupting spaces through the simple yet effective implementation of unexpected elements, he pushes the limits of what a white-cube space and a public area can hold. Coupled with the sense of awe and wonderment that his works naturally evoke, the spaces and interactions they encourage substantiate the pieces. 

Now, through to January 2020, Eliasson is back at Tate Modern with his most comprehensive retrospective to date, charting three strands of what he does best — nature, geometry, and perception. With these three aspects, Eliasson disrupted spaces by inserting elements that prompt the viewer to question perceptions of the physical world. Described by Eliasson himself as ‘seeing yourself sensing’, the installations invite viewers to pause and reconsider what they are experiencing with the artworks, in turn altering the mundane ways we comprehend the world around us, and our own bodily senses. 

Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa/Studio Olafur Eliasson; Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2010 Olafur Eliasson Your uncertain shadow (colour), 2010 at Tate Modern
Your uncertain shadow (colour), 2010 at Tate Modern

Reinterpreting Nature

A majority of Olafur Eliasson’s oeuvre works with subtle aspects of nature that he recreates in an exhibition setting, bringing natural features of the outside environment into the confines of an interior space. Through the largely visceral experience of viewing them, his installations draw attention to nature’s innate qualities we tend to overlook or disregard. 

Raised in Iceland, Eliasson’s artworks that pertain to nature are usually inspired by the natural environment of the regions up north, drawing attention to their distinctive nuances. One of the works on display that addresses this is Moss wall (1994), where 20-metres wide of Scandinavian reindeer moss is presented on an extensive gallery wall. The placement of moss in an environment that is foreign to its natural setting creates a new frame of reference as smaller aspects of the lichen are magnified — its textures, colours, and scent. There is an unmistakable reminder that the lichen is a living plant set within a gallery setting — as the moss dries up, it shrinks and fades in colour; but when it’s watered, the moss expands, changes colour again, and evokes a scent. A simple reconfiguration of space by introducing a foreign element, and placing it at an offbeat angle enforces the viewer to approach the typically ordinary lichen with a separate mindset. Nature, in this case, becomes a construct. 

Photo: Charlie Forgham Bailey © 2018 Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing30 blocks of glacial ice were extracted from the waters surrounding Greenland and displayed right outside of Tate Modern and Bloomberg’s European headquarters for Ice Watch, 2018, a piece made to highlight the escalating climate crisis.
30 blocks of glacial ice were extracted from the waters surrounding Greenland and displayed right outside of Tate Modern and Bloomberg’s European headquarters for Ice Watch, 2018, a piece made to highlight the escalating climate crisis.

His works about nature are also largely intended as a call for action against the climate crisis, with a dedicated section to ‘glacial works’. The presence of absence pavilion (2019) is a significant part of this segment, made in continuation of Ice Watch (2018), where 30 blocks of glacial ice were extracted from the waters surrounding Greenland and displayed right outside of Tate Modern and Bloomberg’s European headquarters. Viewers were able to interact with the glacial ice blocks until they had completely melted, and physically witness the rate at which glaciers have been disappearing. The typically distant perspective we have of the climate emergency in the Arctic Circle was shifted as the problem was placed right in front of the public in palpable reality. As an extension of the piece, The presence of absence pavilion was made as the mould of a melting glacial ice block, tangibly immortalising the space left by the ice and acting as a memento of what was lost. Besides altering our typical understandings of nature through the contrast of setting, Eliasson also believes that his art should remind us of our responsibility in the spaces that we inhabit. 

Without much of an artist statement or description, Eliasson lets the audience bear witness to the consequences we’ve inflicted on the environment by simply introducing these natural components into an unanticipated space. 

Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2019 Olafur EliassonAs an extension of the piece, The presence of absence pavilion, 2019, was made as the mould of a melting glacial ice block, tangibly immortalising the space left by the ice and acting as a memento of what was lost.
As an extension of the piece, The presence of absence pavilion, 2019, was made as the mould of a melting glacial ice block, tangibly immortalising the space left by the ice and acting as a memento of what was lost.

Kaleidoscopic Geometry

Moving past Eliasson’s organic pieces, he tends to experiment with geometric forms as well, playing with kaleidoscopic impressions. A notable piece at the Tate has a row of tapering reflective shafts set into the wall, acting as a window to the surroundings outside. Fragmented reflections of the surroundings continually shift in response to the movement outside of the Tate, as well as the angle at which the viewers are standing. Your planetary window (2019) becomes a life-size kaleidoscopic gateway between the exterior and interior environments of the gallery, with pedestrians and museum-goers as the subject that creates these warped visions. Not only is the physical perception of mundane happenings and daily commutes challenged with unorthodox viewpoints, each contorted piece of glass also zooms in to a specific part outside of the gallery — the grass next to the pavement, red bricks on an opposing building, the trash bin at a side street — framing these common objects and giving viewers no choice but to pay attention to them. 

Creating that interference in a space challenges our immediate senses — in this case, visual perception — scattering our points-of-view with the geometric placement. Besides providing a sense of agency within the space as viewers physically shift for new visions to materialise within the work, there is also an uncertainty in the ambiguity of what we see. There comes an unavoidable intention to take note of these mundane objects that we usually disregard.  

Through inserting his works in these spaces, an undeniable effect of experiencing Eliasson’s works comes from a heightened recognition of the senses, and every movement starts to make a difference. 

Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2019 Olafur EliassonLeft: In real life, 2019; Right: Your planetary window, 2019
Left: In real life, 2019; Right: Your planetary window, 2019

Sensory Perception 

With elements of nature and geometry implemented in the gallery space, there is no doubt that sensory perception stands as a significant facet in every work that Eliasson creates.

One of the notable installations from the exhibition is Din blinde passager (2010) — a long narrow hallway saturated with a dreamy, bright yellow fog, restricting the viewers’ vision and necessitating them to rely on their other senses while navigating the space. Only able to indistinctly make out the silhouettes of other people within the compact passageway, there is an inclination to move slower and to stay conscious of what is occurring next to you, intensifying our dependence on the senses. Big Bang Fountain (2014) is also another highlight, where dyed blue water is pumped up in quick bursts and illuminated by a strobe light, freezing its frenetic form for half a second. Situated within a black, confined room, the viewer could hear the splashes of the water but are greeted by cosmic flashes of it immobilised in its sputtering state. The quick shift in our conventional perception of water creates an uncanny quality to the artwork, leaving viewers mesmerised by each unique form. 

Apart from the implementation of natural elements in the unconventional white-cube space and the warped visions of geometric experimentation, these large-scale sensory installations are surreal experiences created just for a gallery setting. Visitors are transported to an unfamiliar realm where bodily intuitions are oddly heightened; an experiential threshold that Eliasson materialises so well. 

Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2010 Olafur EliassonDin blinde passager, 2010 — Only able to indistinctly make out the silhouettes of other people within the compact passageway, there is an inclination to move slower and to stay conscious of what is occurring next to you.
Din blinde passager, 2010 — Only able to indistinctly make out the silhouettes of other people within the compact passageway, there is an inclination to move slower and to stay conscious of what is occurring next to you.

With works such as these, Olafur Eliasson showcases what he does best — taking simple elements of our everyday lives and presenting them in a manner that enforces the viewer to slow down and reconsider what we know. Each a different experience in their own right, every art piece that Eliasson creates prompt deeper philosophies towards what it means to make use of space and our relationship as an occupant. Space becomes tangible when the sensitivity to its qualities is enhanced. 

Eliasson further incites personal and communal interactions within the gallery as we become responsive to the manner in which we navigate our surroundings — with our own bodies and the people around us. Viewers become entwined in the magnetic experience of his pieces; sensory encounters that only Eliasson can forge, in his own subtle and reflective way. 

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life will be on display at Tate Modern, from 11 July 2019 to 5 Jan 2020.