It wasn’t that long ago that there was a common belief that humans were separate from the natural world. If people wanted to experience the fundamental characterises of the sublime the only option was to journey to the countryside to observe nature and the natural world. In his new show at the Tate Modern in London, the artist Olafur Eliasson attempts to bring the sublime to the city.
When l visited this art exhibition l saw the physical response to the wonders of nature. Eliasson highlights that not only are we part of the environment, that Art, can directly acknowledge and portray a wake-up call that draws attention to the fact that global warming is taking place. In this review I want to contemplate, can art have an impact that leads us to modify our behaviour? And is it really possible that art can change the world?
The show Olafur Eliasson, ‘In Real Life’ contains forty artworks looking back over the 25 years of the Danish Icelandic artist’s work. Eliasson (b. 1967) uses a wide range of materials to make work about his central concerns of nature, geometry and climate change. Eliasson has three studios in different parts of the world. Additionally, he has co-founded an architect’s practice called Studio Other Spaces, with architect Sebastian Behmann. His main collaborative studio is in Berlin where he collaborates with a team of scientist, architects, art critics, and artists.
The many people in the UK who love art will remember, Eliasson’s ‘Weather Project’ made in 2003 at the Tate Modern’s turbine hall. Before that show, it was expected that a hundred thousand visitors would make their way to see a large orange and yellow intangible sun. However, Eliasson hit a home run and two million visitors came. The artwork turned the turbine hall into not only a jaw-dropping theatrical experience but also into a highly successful social and public space. Visitors lay down under the fake smoke and mirrors, basking in the unnatural dazzling artificial sunlight and smoke, like moths to a light bulb. It was definitely the closest near-religious experience I have had in an art gallery.
Eliasson has always sought to attract people who are not necessarily specialists in art believing that art has the potential to draw attention to how we feel about the world. He believes that it is important to attract as wide as possible an audience in order to get his message across. Particularly those people entering museums for the first time. Eliasson’s art certainly does that successfully, capturing fun and fascination and the interest of young minds. His work has attracted many families to look at art and interact with it over the summer holidays.
The exhibition starts outside the museum with ‘Waterfall’ (2019) when Eliasson brings a natural spectacle dramatically to the streets of London. The waterfall is inspired by the many of waterfalls he experienced as a child and adult in Iceland. The eleven-metre high man-made structure is made out of scaffolding. Surprisingly, the work feels dwarfed by the surrounding buildings that dominate it. Although it was enjoyable to cool off by walking through the watery mist on a hot summer day, I felt the scale limited the artworks magnitude and impact. It could have been absolutely breathtaking.
However, the ‘Waterfall’ starts the journey into the flux. Entering the Blavatnik building and going up one floor the lift arrives at an entrance with incredible yellow mono frequency lighting. It is the same lighting he used for the ‘Weather Project’ (2003). ‘Room for one colour’ (1997) startlingly turns down all colours so everything becomes yellow and black. After this starling eye feast, it is back to the conventionality of exhibition rooms.
Well almost, Eliasson’s work deals with sensory experience after all. After waterfalls and yellow light, there are geodesic models of all shapes and sizes. I am met with a wall of Reindeer moss, a natural phenomenon that makes a comment about how we ruminate over our built environment.
This is followed by more artworks, that are certainly not conventional. ‘Your blind passenger’ (2010) is a thirty-nine-metre long walkway down a tunnel of bright fog where the atmospheric content becomes another Eliasson Moment. I stumbled through blindly with my arms out like a zombie as if trying to grasp the intangible experience. I could only see one or two metres in front of me, and due to being in a public space, everyone has their arms up to prevent a compromising contact with a stranger.
One of my favourite works was ‘Beauty’ (1993). A super-fine mist of rain dramatically lit in a dark room. A faint rainbow shivers in the water. It made me consider and question what was being portrayed. However, once you realise is it a simple pump and hose creating the work, it doesn’t diminish its value. I reminded myself it is only water, there is no sculpture and no one owns a rainbow but my mind was left thinking about the dematerialisation of an art object, and how Eliasson had taken such a simple idea and made it a noteworthy occasion of significance.
Walking into another dark room there is a sudden burst of light in the centre of the room. It takes a moment to realise a strobe light is illuminating a fountain of water. The ever-changing sculptural form ‘Big Bang Fountain’ (2014) is constructed for a fleeting split second. This work encourages you to consider how the space and the artwork are constructed. When the strobe snaps, a different water sculpture is at the forefront of your mind. The mental sculpture stays with you until the next bright flash of light appears. It is certainly illuminating.
These individual artworks successfully cloud the distinction between culture and nature. I now understand that nature is not just something out there; there is no outside. I felt like I had an education in a playfully way without realising it. I had an Eliasson Moment.
However, I came to the show with a question, about whether art can change the world? I now realise that Art can undoubtfully be used to stimulate conversation and create a meaningful debate about what scientists and politicians are doing. It can bring an important conversation about climate change to the front of our minds. Unfortunately, the exhibition failed to convince me to stop everything I am doing that has an impact on climate change, like using my diesel car. But how could it? Nevertheless, it did give me cause to think about my actions more closely. I will definitely consider using my bike for shorter journeys, use fewer plastic bags and consider other measures l do to help the environment. Hopefully, this exhibition will help instigate a change in our awareness.
At the end of the exhibition l sat playing with Zometools models for fifteen minutes, children were sitting next to me. I watched the world go by as I tinkered. The tangible and at times touchable art l witnessed for me hit the ball out of the park. Although occasionally I thought it lacked a bit of emotionalisation and the scale of the waterfall didn’t quite reach the full sublime moment, I left thinking about our miraculous planet. Eliasson gave me an awe-inspiring feeling and respect for nature. I left educated about how we are destroying our planet beyond repair. I am not confident that art can change the world but I did feel that the message needs to be repeated a hundred times in order to evoke real change.