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Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

Having admired Eliasson’s work for twenty years, I’d expected to love everything about this significant Tate survey. Instead, I began to wonder if I’d over-invested in his ideas.

The Glacier series, looking through the yellow screen of Suney to the Glacial Works.

There are visual artists I love as much as any songwriter or band. If an artwork finds me, it might stay forever, like a song from the soundtrack of my life. I might become fluent in an artist’s entire career, progressive bodies of work measuring time like albums. I’ve greeted exhibition announcements as enthusiastically as tours. If I connect at this level, I’ve probably seen myself in the work and felt that it, in turn, has seen me — more entirely than it’s seen anyone else. It becomes mine, and I love that.

Olafur Eliasson’s path to widespread acclaim is analogous to that of a band like Radiohead. Both had gained fans and won over critics, but few expected what came next. The Weather Project did for Eliasson what OK Computer did for Radiohead — or maybe Glastonbury is a neater comparison, the Turbine Hall commission elevating the artist the way headlining made superstars of the band. Everybody remembers his “indoor sun” and will tell you they were there. Writers lean on it as the benchmark against which to measure new material. In both cases, the cultural impact was immense: music and art seemed different afterwards, and they left us forever in awe.

A deep connection

Your uncertain shadow, 2010
Your uncertain shadow, 2010.

The Weather Project was an Instagram moment long before Instagram. It was unexpected, communal, and remains a handy guide to the powerful simplicity of Eliasson’s art. I was there, but my first exposure to his work predates his breakthrough by several years.

I lucked into successive art residencies in the late 90s. I made work about local landscapes, and how it felt to be in them. I tuned in to land art, the environment, geometry, ways of seeing. In Iceland I matured fast, responding to a dialled-up landscape of untamed rivers, vast glaciers, bold colours, endless light and geothermal activity. I was trying to pin down my ideas when I found everything I wanted in one Eliasson project — 1999’s Glacier series. It felt like a neatly pressed version of my creased thinking; even the grid of photos was a device I’d been using. I haven't made art for many years, but I owe much to that period, and revisiting Eliasson seems to illuminate both my past and future worldview.

In preparation for this big Tate survey, I did my research, reread old books and typed an endless scroll of notes. I considered the ways viewers activate the experience: that we’re encouraged to see ourselves sensing, that we co-produce the work, and become more alert to those around us. I attended the Tate-hosted sustainability panel to dig deeper into Eliasson’s thoughts on climate and democratised culture. I visited the exhibition as soon as I could, arriving early to spend time with each work and examine my responses. I returned a few days later.

Over-exposure

In the two months since, I’ve felt unsure how to write about it, partly because a weird thing happened: I think I became over-exposed to my favourite artist: all that prep, the panel, visiting twice, sampling his menu, hoovering up masses of press coverage and social sharing, and his sudden omnipresence. Last week, for example, he was named a UN Goodwill Ambassador and made his Netflix debut. I probably wouldn’t have cared if the Tate show had left me breathless, but it didn't.

The seeing space, 2015
The seeing space, 2015.

I do have many highlights: the yellow light of Room for one colour reducing the spectral range to only black and white, the realisation I’d been entertaining a corridor of observers in The seeing space, and walking with arms outstretched through the rainbow rain of Beauty. Each time we entered Your blind passenger, we allowed others to be erased by the fog so we could enjoy a moment of solitude. The unpretentious Wavemachines stirred a memory of an edifying paddle at Balnakeil two years earlier, the soothing rhythm echoing the gentle tide I’d enjoyed that day. Oh, and I sat before The Glacier series for a whole hour.

I enjoyed it, so why did it register below my expectations? Well, I’m not sure we get the best examples of his breadth of ambition, and I also wished for more breathing space between installations (it’s a very compact layout). The main problems are of my own making: I’d become so enthralled by Eliasson’s expressive theory that I went around measuring experiences against his principles. Also, many personal favourites are absent from this setlist (though I doubt everything’s available, or that it’s easy to install multi-environment works like The Mediated Motion — or that the curators even wanted to). Still, I craved more of the land-inspired works that meant so much to me. I was happiest in the ‘Iceland’ room.

Connecting the dots

While swots like me arrive over-prepared and burdened by expectation, most enjoy themselves with open minds and cameras at the ready. There’s no need to do any homework because we’re invited to draw our own conclusions, or draw none at all and just bathe in the experience. In addition, there’s an opportunity to connect all the dots right before exiting through the (thoughtfully stocked) gift shop.

The pin-wall in The Expanded Studio.

The pin-wall is a room-length, CSI-style accumulation of clippings, highlights and scribbles from a world of sources, where anything you might have overlooked so far is made explicit. It’s part of The Expanded Studio, a busy room reflecting the interests and inspirations of the entire multidisciplinary workforce. I don’t think anyone considers the pin-wall an artwork, but I felt it hugely rewarding as it reflected many of my concerns.

Themes I noted include the ways we make, experience and judge art; climate grief and activism; contradictory ideas about the Anthropocene; nods to Icelandic oddness; ways to reframe tech; old faves like pace layers and The Long Now. It was reassuring to see essays and quotes from minds I’m already reading: James Bridle’s New Dark Age, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, Bruno Latour’s Air, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects. The wall reassured me that I’m looking in all the right places; that I’m doing ok.

Truth and doubt

So I’ve ended up with many questions. How often does his work give reality to his rhetoric? Can these experiences genuinely help us see ourselves and those around us? How can that same work cast light on issues that will shape our future? Are his ambitions for a society that fundamentally values culture unrealistic?

Am I now more interested in the way Eliasson talks about his art than the art itself?

Rain window, 1999
Rain window, 1999.

I’m still giving thought to these questions. A project like Ice Watch does away with impenetrable data and makes the climate crisis tangible, democratising public space and encouraging debate. Other artworks help us find ourselves within abstract narratives through our movement and relationship to space. However, while some Insta-friendly kaleidoscopic pieces are geometrically beautiful, seeing yourself soon gets too literal, and can feel like a conceptual dead end.

His societal ideas are persuasive at a time when people feel ignored, and it’s crucial we describe a future in which we want to live. We need democratised spaces for safe debate and imagination, and culture can facilitate that. I particularly love that his most successful work plays with reality but does not seek to deceive. There’s much to distrust in our world right now, but Eliasson’s art is fundamentally truthful: we witness the illusion, but we also see how it’s done.

Having a favourite artist is much like having a favourite band, and who you elevate depends on the shape of life at that point. New favourites earn the top spot, but old favourites remain favourites. Sometimes our heroes cause us to doubt, but loyalty usually endures. It’s also not that important, any of this; why does it matter if we have a favourite anything?

What is important is that I realise I over-prepared and over-invested. The closer I looked, the more bumps I uncovered. Eliasson is still — for now — my favourite artist, but I’ve introduced doubt. I’m also somewhat jealous of those who just turned up to see what In Real Life was all about and then moved on, rather than spending many frustrating hours trying to write about it.

I published my notes from the sustainability panel. Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Modern until 5th January 2020.