Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life exhibition in the Tate Modern

By Jessica Peach, MLA-1


I first discovered Olafur Eliasson and his work watching an episode about him on the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design (I highly recommend this whole series!!) He is a Danish-Icelandic artist known for installation art that employ elemental materials including light, water and air temperature to enhance the viewer’s experience. Through exploring the wilderness of Iceland with its vast, tumbling waterfalls spraying out rainbows, to living in and navigating the busy capital of Denmark, he understands and appreciates variation in sensory experiences within a landscape. As the guide for the exhibition describes his work:


“Eliasson puts experience at the centre of his art. He hopes that as you encounter it, you become more aware of your senses. You add meaning to the works as you bring your associations and memories to these experiences. You might also become more aware of the people around you with whom you form a temporary community. For Eliasson, this heightened awareness of yourself and other people creates a new sense of responsibility. Ultimately, he believes that art can have a strong impact on the world outside the museum.”


The exhibition that I saw in London was a collection of over 40 works of art he (and his studio at Studio Olafur Eliasson) have made between 1990 and today. This broad body of work included immersive installations, sculptures, photography and paintings, and the materials he used ranged from moss, glacial meltwater and fog, to light and mirrors. All of the work was related to Olafur’s three particularly important 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.


As I entered the first space I was greeted with a glass box filled with crazy creations of a variety of geometric shapes made from different materials including wire, paper and Lego. At first it seemed like a lovely mess of glowing orange junk, and I assume this is what it looks like inside Olafur’s head most of the time – beautiful, genius and a little overwhelming! Focusing on certain models allowed me to see how they influenced each other, and later I found some shapes are mirrored on a scale big enough to walk through.


The following room had one ginormous wall covered completely by fluffy, scented Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) and along the middle of the floor there were shallow wave machines creating playful ripples in a yellow-dyed liquid. Here there was also a positive orange-yellow glow which may not have seemed a key part of the design but could not be ignored as it truly affected my emotions in the space. This colour palette is known to produce warm, calm and happy emotions in people, and Olafur would have designed it to be so.


The comforting yellow effect in the first two rooms makes the transition into the next humid, pitch-black space much clearer and more exciting. A spotlight shines on a mist of water falling from the ceiling, creating a rainbow curtain you can walk through. A glass orb that stuck out into the orange room and revealed nothing, now is a one-way mirror allowing us to see the upside down, confused expressions in the black corridor. This not only let light into the dark room, but a lightness of comedy into what could have been a serious and dark exhibition space.


The next room was the most intense space I have ever experienced at an exhibition. Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger 2010) was a long, narrow corridor in which I was temporarily blinded by brightly illuminated fog, moving through different hues of blue to yellow and not being able to see even my outstretched fingertips! The air tasted sweet as an artificial sweetener was used to create the dense fog, and when I entered the yellow space all I could see of myself appeared in monochrome: this effect was produced by a magical tone of light that takes colour away from everything it touches, and was used in other spaces including the Room for one colour and Model room.


The next room was almost just a huge version of the Model room, with reflections, light and geometry tricking the eye and exciting visitors as we walked through twisted spirals and stuck our heads into kaleidoscopic window frames.


A set of ‘paintings’ displayed in the next room really caught my attention: they were two inky planets, about 1m in diameter, that had been created by placing a chunk of ancient glacial ice fished from the coast of Greenland atop a thin wash of colour on a thick sheet of paper. As the ice had gradually melted, the resulting water displayed the pigment, producing organic swells and fades of colour. The connection was easily made between our blue planet of water and the ice we humans are melting: what planet will we create for ourselves when the sea levels rise above the ground level of most major cities? Does this artwork show a devastating swirl of pollution flowing into the sea, or a brave new world we have saved through good design and art? These feelings followed me into another room that was divided from the Glacial currents by Suney 1995, a vast sheet of transparent yellow plastic that filters the light and artworks on the other side. A collections of glacial outwash streams were photographed from a raft, and on the opposite wall a series of glaciers were photographed from the sky comparing their lengths over time (spoiler alert: they have all shrunk).


“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 virtue of scientific knowledge, not of what we can see with the naked eye.” (M. Drutt, 2004)


Your uncertain shadow was the most playful and simple space I enjoyed: eight coloured lights were set against the back wall, and as you walked through the room your coloured shadows began appearing on the massive opposite wall. Children were giggling and dancing at the shapes they recognised, and even solo viewers took some time to wave a hand or wiggle their leg to see if they could spot themselves.


Finally, I left through The Expanded Studio: a room not only full of videos and prototypes related to ongoing collaborative work such as Little Sun and an A-Z wall of ideas and inspiration, but also a huge table of mountable, articulated model pieces intended for play. This Structural evolution project (2001) developed the space even further, emphasising the fun of the whole exhibit as well as the value and importance of taking a youthful approach to problem-solving and creativity, and perhaps even a nod to the youth climate movement.


I left the exhibition feeling almost overwhelmed with joy and inspiration, and as I walked outside past the Waterfall 2019 (an actual 6m waterfall cascading from scaffolding into a basin of water), I was struck with an appreciation of the natural world that is a rare emotion to feel in an urban space. I hope landscape architects take the opportunity to look into In Real Life and other similar exhibitions. It is absolutely possible, and perhaps essential, to consider the feelings and emotions being created when a landscape is designed. By using a simple concept inspired by the natural world - the playfulness of ripples, the calming smell of a forest, or the excitement and wonder of rainbows – a space can be elevated to a place of joy and inspiration, a tonic in our stressful and isolating urban landscapes.

© 2018 by RE:ALM x SoLA

Manchester School of Architecture

Manchester Metropolitan University

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