Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) is a Danish-Icelandic artist who is known for his work which uses natural materials and occurrences such as sun and light, water and rain or air and wind to enhance viewer’s experiences as well as making a statement about the world in which we live. For almost 30 years he has explored three particular interests: his concern with nature, honed through his time in Iceland, his research into geometry and his ongoing investigations into how we perceive, feel about and shape the world around us.
Our experience, as viewers, is central to Eliasson’s art, the idea being that you become more aware of your senses as you encounter it; adding meaning to the work as your associations and experiences become part of it; heightened awareness of yourself, and others.
This 30 years of work and exploration about the world around us has been brought together at Tate Modern’s new major exhibition In Real Life which contains over 40 artworks with the overall aim of challenging our perception of reality.
The exhibition opens with a room dedicated to models, aptly called the Model room (2003). Containing around 450 models, prototypes and geometric studies, they form a record of Eliasson’s work with his studio team and also his collaborator, the Icelandic artist, mathematician and architect Einar Thorsteinn (1942–2015).
These models are clearly important to Eliasson and his studio as they allow ideas to be tested, at scale, problems to be rectified and happy accidents to be found; they are made from wire, card, paper, lego, wood, foam, rubber balls and many more. This model-making is an ongoing exploration and body of research.
After the introductory Model Room, the exhibition opens up to a large room with several off-shoot rooms and no fixed route (there is a suggested route however), creating a non-linear narrative of Elliason’s work and allowing you to make your own links between works. In this first large room though you are hit with a strange and un-recognisable smell which is from a large wall covered in white Scandinavian reindeer lichen (cladonia rangiferina) called Moss wall (1994).
This moss wall is part of his early works along with Wavemachines (1995): four long and shallow basins with motors which produce waves in water and Regenfenster/Rain window (1999): a window with an endless flow of rain-like water giving the impression that it is raining outside, express his interest in nature and the weather; connecting his experiences of the Icelandic landscape to making sculpture.
The reoccurring theme of, and strong connection to Iceland in Eliasson’s work is derived from his regular trips to the country—and its remote landscape—as a child. Over the years he has created many photographic series which document the country and describes it as a place he needs to engage with physically by climbing, walking, swimming or even water rafting. Through time spent in Iceland, Eliasson has witnessed first-hand how global warming and climate change is causing its glaciers to melt; something he captured through his photography in 1999: The glacier series (1999). In autumn there will be a new photographic study here, documenting the glacier sizes in 2019.
“In The glacier series, the massive glaciers are seen from the sky, at a distance where we can appreciate their magnitude; in order to see them in their entirety, we need to get away from them. Their incremental movement is a phenomenon we understand by the virtue of scientific knowledge, not of what we can see with the naked eye.”
Matthew Drutt (b. 1962)
His time in Iceland also allowed him to understand atmospheric conditions and to explore how artists have captured light throughout history and to apply his own thinking to this. In his Colour experiments he analyses the colour palettes of existing paintings of nature and abstracts these landscapes into colour fields, creating abstract colour wheels. These circular colour studies where the first works of Eliasson that I saw in 2014 at Tate Britain where Eliasson had abstracted the paintings of JMW Turner. The result of these colour studies are immensely graphic and satisfying with seamless gradients and colour differentiation.
Eliasson’s interests in movement, light and space have led him to create many large-scale installations such as sensory spaces, free-standing structures and pavilions. His geometric experimentation allows him to explore and challenge the usual ways of building and how we move around spaces. Over time this approach has grown in size and scope and includes the likes of Your rainbow panorama (2006–11): a large cirular rainbow viewing platform on top of ARoS, Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark and Cirkelbroen/Circle bridge (2015): a series of interconnected circles which form a bridge in Copenhagen.
As for multi-sensory, installation-like works in this exhibition, the largest and most interesting is Din blinde passager/Your blind passenger (2010): a 39 metre long corridor filled with a water-soluble fog (made from non-toxic polyol, a sweetener often used in food production) where upon entry you can only see about 1.5 metres ahead of you; immediately disorientating and blinding you, it requires you to use these other senses to move through. As you do light gets stronger and changes colour and you begin to feel it on your face, taste it in your mouth and smell it. You can also hear the slight hum of the fog being poured into the corridor; it is an all-round sensory experience and also a feeling of being trapped. ‘Blind passenger’ is the Danish expression for a stowaway which is how it feels here.
The In Real Life exhibition ends with a large room, filled with the work of his studio: Studio Eliasson which explores his practice beyond making artworks, exhibitions and public sculptures. It shows how he works with his studio and outside collaborators on architectural projects, a cookbook, an art school and dance projects. Together with Sebastian Behmann (b. 1969) he founded the architectural practice Studio Other Spaces and has initiated projects directly addressing issues we face in today's world including that of climate change and renewable energy.
Olafur Eliasson – In Real Life is on at Tate Modern until 5 January 2020 and is worth the visit to experience first-hand these multi-sensory artworks.
In Amsterdam it’s also possible to experience the work of Eliasson at the Eye Film Institute north of the River Ij. During its construction and design his Starbrick lights where used to decorate the restaurant ceiling.
“The Starbrick is an experiment with light modulation and space. Together with my studio, I initially focused on the spatial challenges involved in the shaping of a complex geometric brick. This led to the development of stackable star-shaped modules that produce three types of space: the solid structure of the module itself, the negative space at its core, and the polyhedric spheres that appear between the modules when stacked.
I have attempted to develop a module that, while functioning as an object in itself, can also be assembled to form multiple basic architectural elements such as walls (whether free-standing or integrated into an overall structure), suspended ceilings, columns of all shapes, sizes and volumes — theoretically, you could build an entire luminous house out of Starbricks! The expandable principle is a generous one that makes it possible for the lamp system to relate to its surroundings.
The Starbrick poses questions that are central to both contemporary art and society: how does light define space? What politics of light infuse our immediate surroundings?”