Review: Olafur Eliasson’s ‘In Real Life’ @ Tate Modern

The art of the spectator.

The Tate Modern’s exhibition, In Real Life showcases Olafur Eliasson’s work at a scale that is truly breath-taking. This particularly immersive exhibition places the spectator at the centre of the art itself. Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist and this exhibition offers 40 of his works from 1990 to today. In Real Life features his sculptures, immersive installations, photography, and painting. Eliasson’s art is often inspired by his time spent in Iceland and is predisposed to concern elemental forces of nature and investigate human perception and our collective ability to sense the world around us. His installation pieces are abstract and the message behind his art can seem ambiguous. Therefore, the reception of his work is highly subjective.

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In my opinion, the most striking piece within the exhibition was ‘Din blinde passager’ (Your blind passage), consisting of a 39-metre-long corridor filled with fog made from water-soluble food sweetener. For myself and the many that visited this exhibition, when the doors were opened there was nothing but intrigue and exclamations of wonder. We were immersed in a bright white cloud, sweet to the taste. It was difficult to see more than a metre in front of you and the fog seemed to stretch on infinitely. Progressing through the corridor, the colours diffuse along the spectrum from yellow to orange to blue. Immersed in yellow light you can only see yellow, other pigments become grey-scale. The art of this piece was the colour’s ability to manipulate the perception of your immediate surroundings. It is a multisensory installation where the blinding nature of the fog heightens other senses. An otherworldly experience, beautifully frightening, demonstrating the power of elemental forces and inciting fear. You become lost and unable to see a way forward. One child in the exhibition exclaimed, “I don’t like it” whilst others seemed struck with awe. It is difficult not to draw a comparison between this artificial fog and recent awareness of rising air pollution in London. The all-consuming, blinding nature of the fog connotes the destructive impact of pollution in the air we breathe.

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Eliasson’s work often involves nature or evokes concerns with the elements. This is demonstrated particularly well in his elegant piece, ‘Beauty’, composed of a shower of water vapour, illuminated in a dark room to create a spectrum of light. This is stunning to see and ties into the climate theme in his photography titled, ‘The glacier series’ (1999), where he documents the movements and decline of a glacier. Eliasson’s work holds cultural relevance as this exhibition brings the reality of climate crisis to the forefront, reminiscent of the 2018 installation, ‘Ice Watch’.  Large ice blocks from Greenland were placed outside the gallery to slowly melt away, a poignant demonstration of the damage caused by rising temperatures. On the 2019 Netflix documentary series, AbstractEliasson states that he wants to “talk about climate in a language that is not all about doom and gloom”. This is illustrated in his piece, ‘How do we live together?’, composed of a mirror covering the ceiling of a room. The spectators glance up at themselves, heightening a collective sense of responsibility.  

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Similarly to this theme, Eliasson’s 2010 piece, ‘Your uncertain shadow’, caught my attention. Eliasson had assembled coloured lights to overlap and project onto a large blank wall. Walking around the room you can see silhouettes projected on the wall in technicolour. The spectator is the art, as shadows merge with other shadows in the room. This created a sense of community as strangers at the exhibition came together to form one artwork. Every person in the room was projected in rainbows.

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In Real Life is a beautiful, exciting and optimistic exhibition, yet also dualistic in its ability to frighten and raise awareness of real-world issues. Eliasson’s work has its own self-consciousness; the centrality of the spectator means interpretation is everything. All is reflected back at you.

In Real Life is available to be seen at Tate Modern until 5 January 2020.

– Camilla Delhanty

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