LONDON — The great Rebecca Solnit once wrote:
During my years as an art critic I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.
Solnit wrote these words in an essay about Virginia Woolf, in which she explores the writer’s philosophy of embracing the unexplained and the uncertain, while she also touches on the tyranny of the quantifiable, the multiplicity of personal identity, the human fear of the unknown, and the definition of liberty. I recently discovered this wonderful text via an online pinboard produced by members of Olafur Eliasson’s studio, collected with other texts and images under the heading “Climate.”
This list of resources here is a digitized demonstration of how Eliasson and his team of researchers and craftspeople collate information and inspiration on the studio’s walls, pinning up pictures, academic papers and article clippings that respond to the various themes currently under investigation. Eliasson has also recreated a physical example of these pinboards as part of his Tate Modern retrospective, giving visitors a chance both to investigate more deeply specific projects and to expand their horizons by exploring the sprawling network of attendant issues that proliferate around Eliasson’s holistic practice.
It’s this holistic, expanded element of Eliasson’s work that is sometimes sidelined or simplified by institutions. The artist’s philosophy extends far beyond artworks and installations — into architecture, practical, climate-related or social projects, food, and the broader ethos of the studio and collaboration. It can be difficult to incorporate these elements into a retrospective.
This is certainly something that the curators of Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life — Tate’s Mark Godfrey and Emma Lewis — are aware of, and they seem to have taken some pains to avoid giving into what Solnit describes as “that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain” the open-endedness of the artist’s practice. They have primarily done this by allowing the show to spill out over the boundaries of the ticketed exhibition space: There are works in the corridors, for instance, as well as on the terrace outside, and the café has been redesigned to resemble the Studio Olafur Eliasson kitchen.
The effect is slightly strange. These additional works include “Room for One Colour” (1997), which bathes its environment in yellow light and causes viewers to perceive everything in monochrome. The work was shown relatively recently at London’s National Gallery, where it felt powerfully immersive. At Tate Modern however, it is installed in the busy corridor next to the lifts. Its effect diluted, it feels rather like an advertising ploy for the ticketed part of the show.
Eliasson has also created a new work for the public terrace, part of his Waterfall series. Standing at over 36 feet tall, it should be monumental. However, set against Tate Modern’s Bankside surroundings — expensive offices and tall apartment blocks in steel and glass — it feels more like a garden fountain for contemporary wealth. Is Tate making fun of itself and its own commercialization? I’m not sure.
On the other hand, Eliasson’s work also treads a similarly fine line between what might be called populism and intellectualism: appealing alternately to teenagers taking selfies and academics writing papers (not that these are necessarily mutually exclusive categories). For instance, Timothy Morton, one of the great philosophical writers of our age, points to the “obvious visual gag” of Eliasson’s “Ice Watch” (2014), which was restaged in London last year in anticipation of this exhibition. It features melting chunks of glacial ice sourced from the Greenland ice sheet, which have been presented in a clock formation in various prominent, public locations over the last few years. Morton claims that the work is in fact “much more interesting” than this first layer of access might suggest. He uses “Ice Watch” as a key example of how art can help us to understand our relationship with nonhumans in an age of ecological crisis, arguing that the artwork “seriously stretched or went beyond prefabricated concepts, in a friendly and simple, yet deep way.”
It is important to recognize the multi-layered nature of Eliasson’s work, which uses this friendly and simple visual language to challenge the viewer’s assumptions. It’s not necessarily essential to ascribe philosophical theory to a piece in order to understand, access, or appreciate it. For example, “Beauty” (1993) is a complex investigation into the natural visual phenomenon of the rainbow, while also encouraging the viewer to confront the subjectivity and constructed nature of human perception. To view the work, visitors stand in a darkened room while light playing through a superfine mist of water makes mesmerizing patterns. It’s a reminder of the intensely fragile beauty of the natural world and its elements. It also does what it says on the tin – it’s simply and superbly beautiful. It’s “accessible.” This aspect of his practice makes Eliasson’s work hard both to curate and critique. Most people like Olafur Eliasson, and many curators and critics don’t like it when most people like the same things they do. This is probably why many people who inhabit “that confinement sometimes called the art world” (in Solnit’s words) find Eliasson’s work unsettling.
Admittedly, sometimes the “visual gag” in an Eliasson work is just too much fun or the selfie opportunities are just too tempting, obscuring those deeper layers of meaning and relevance. “Your uncertain shadow (colour)” (2010), for instance, splits the shadows of passersby into a set of rainbow colors. It’s very enjoyable but, set in a busy room through which visitors have to pass a number of times to see other works, its feels like little more than a clever, visual trick.
This is perhaps the problem of presenting Eliasson’s works in the context of a retrospective, where visitors know that something else likely just as cool is waiting around the corner, and where mirrors, kaleidoscopes, and immersive experiences offer one Instagram-worthy moment after another. The floorplan intended to guide visitors round the exhibition looks more like a map of a fairground than anything else, complete with attractions such as the “Big Bang Fountain” (2014) and “Wavemachines” (1995). As a result, the impact of each individual work is somehow diminished. To draw on Timothy Morton again: Sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
By far the most effective works are those which have a room to themselves, usually because of practical requirements. Eliasson’s work comes to a zenith in “Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger)” (2010), a 125-feet-long corridor filled with dense fog. The experience can only be described as mystical. I was nearly alone in the space, and it felt like I was alone in the universe. My eyes were unable to focus, and as I moved through sections of different colored mist, I thought I could see my own irises, flashing as a ring of blue in front of me, and I could hear my own heartbeat in my ears.
Emerging as though reborn from this quasi-religious experience, my perception heightened and my senses more attuned than they were before, I was ready for enlightenment. Knowing that environmental concerns are close to Eliasson’s heart and practice, I expected to be faced with a work with an ecological outlook. I was prepared to engage with something more than human, now that my senses had been tautened to a more-than-human level.
Instead, I was met with fractured images of myself in a plethora of works that make use of kaleidoscopic mirrors and spiraling lights: “In real life” (2019), “Your planetary window” (2019), and “Your spiral view” (2002). It was all a bit much: The transcendence suggested by “Din blinde passage” was broken into fractals and replaced with a queue of people waiting patiently for their turn to take photos.
Ecological issues do play an important role in the retrospective, but subtler representations, such as “The presence of absence pavilion” (2019), fall a little flat among the techno-wizardry and flashy geometry of other works. Of course, Eliasson’s multifaceted approach suggests that all the issues in the show are interconnected, that there is a fundamental correlation between viewers’ perception of their immediate “environment” and their perception of the environment in the broader ecological sense. Both, he suggests, are inherently biased, but both are potentially open to change.
I felt this key guiding principle got a little lost in the restless energy of Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life. But perhaps my feeling of intense sensory overload contains a message of its own: Although we can find ways to imbue our experiences with meaning, “real life” is messy and distracting. And our inability to process it effectively is driving us to the brink of collapse.
Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on view at Tate Modern,(Bankside, London) through January 5. It was curated by Mark Godfrey, a senior curator of international art, and Emma Lewis, an assistant curator of international Art at Tate Modern.