Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern

There’s something for everyone at this smorgasbord from the renaissance man of our times, writes Jim Crawley

The fortunes of Olafur Eliasson and Tate Modern are inextricably linked. Eliasson first wowed the public with The Weather Project in 2003 that brought the glow of a setting sun to the cavernous Turbine Hall. With over two million visitors, this installation also catapulted Tate Modern into the premier league of cultural attractions. Since then, Eliasson has developed a community of architects, designers, film makers, and even cooks to tackle projects that aim to change the way we see, think and feel about what is happening ‘in the world outside the museum’.  This retrospective, In Real Life, is his first major show at Tate Modern since The Weather Project and provides the chance to see works and collaborations from Eliasson’s teen years to the present day.

Born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, Eliasson spent his childhood in the Nordic countryside and his best pieces recreate the sensations and fragility of nature. Beauty (1993) for instance is little more than a fine mist of water cascading down against a dark background like the spray of a waterfall. But stop a while and you’ll quickly start to see rainbows weaving across the folding sheets of vapour. The work is gentle and dreamlike, and made more poignant by the realisation that even though you’re standing in a crowd, only you can see those rainbows. As Eliasson says, the work is about both individual perception and shared experience.

Ólafur Eliasson Beauty (1993); Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 1993 Ólafur Eliasson

But it’s also a compelling artistic vision that is achieved through technical mastery – the nozzles have been carefully calibrated, the lighting positioned to catch the mist just right and the optimum viewing distance measured. And for me, this combination of art and artifice lies at the heart of Eliasson’s best works that engage our senses and our brains.

Another revelatory piece is Big Bang Fountain (2014). Set behind a curtain in a side room, the pulse of a strobe light illuminates spurts of water in a sequence of unique and ever-changing shapes. Each spectral image is only visible for a fraction of a second, lighting up the faces around you, before the darkness reasserts itself. These ghosts are literally in the machine; it’s like being in a modern-day séance.

Olafur Eliasson Big Bang Fountain (2014); Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles, © 2014 Ólafur Eliasson

Elsewhere Eliasson allows us to see both the image and the way it is produced. Wavemachines (1995) is precisely that – four shallow troughs filled with yellow water, each fitted with an electric motor that produces tiny waves. The same goes for Window Projection (1990); a spotlight literally casts the shadow of a window frame onto the gallery wall. By standing in front of the light, your shadow appears in the window and you become part of the art. Both are simple playful pieces but redolent with quiet reflection on space and perception.

But while some works dazzle at first, they become less substantial with more thought. The pastel images of Your Uncertain Shadow (Colour) (2010) offer endless opportunities for Instagrammable selfies and yes, that is yours truly below. But Eliasson’s attempt to get us to contemplate the hidden components of white light isn’t enough to offset the photo-frenzy. Other pieces are not well served by their siting in the show. I grew up in solitude and silence (1991) featuring flickering lamplight projected onto a circular screen needs to be appreciated in its own room but stands in a passageway. And Regenfenster (Rain Window) (1999) is simply what appears to be rain on the gallery window. Eliasson’s message about the presence of natural forces even in the Tate’s urban environment might be important but this work is so eminently missable, I doubt many people spotted it.

Ólafur Eliasson Your Uncertain Shadow (Colour) (2010); Personal photo

For many, the highlight of the show is Your blind passenger (2010). Brightly lit fog fills a 39-meter long tunnel that at first disorientates you, making you feel your way blindly with other senses heightened. As you move forward, the fog changes colour from yellow to blue to white until with relief, you find the exit door. I say ‘for many’ though as to be honest, I never made it inside. Having queued for half an hour and with little prospect of getting in, I gave up. So be warned – this show is extraordinarily popular.             

Other works prompt the thought that important messages don’t guarantee good art. The twelve photographs of Melting ice on Gunnar’s land (2008) that document the disappearing ice on land owned by a family friend have a momentous subject but are visually dull, while The presence of absence pavilion (2019) in which the shape of a block of glacial ice has been cast in bronze before it melted away is simply obscure.   

Ólafur Eliasson Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger), 2010; Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2010 Ólafur Eliasson

This show is a smorgasbord. Some works showcase Eliasson’s unique talent to engage our brains and our senses to deliver his messages of social and environmental responsibility. But with others, the gap between the message and the modest impact of the work is so big, Eliasson becomes preachy and overly earnest. Like many retrospectives, the show also tries to be comprehensive but sacrifices substance in doing so. Less would definitely have been more.

But the show’s scale and the inclusion of add-ons focusing on Eliasson’s wider interests at least ensure that like any good smorgasbord, there’s something for everyone. So, if you have a couple of hours spare between now and the start of next term, there’s both fun and reflection to be had here.

Ólafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on at Tate Modern until 5th January 2020. For more information visit the website here.

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