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Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

The high-profile exhibition at the Tate Modern packs an environmental punch behind the smoke and mirrors

Olafur Eliasson’s “In real life”, which is on until 5th January 2020, is a truly must-see exhibition at the Tate Modern. All forty of this Danish-Islandic artist’s installations push you into thinking beyond what appears before your eyes, challenging your senses and your perspective of the world outside the gallery walls. Room after room, the sculptures are enthralling, and paintings and photographs defy categorisation. Each room comes as a surprise.

The most thrilling installation is a 39-metre tunnel, pumped full of thick ‘pea soup’ fog, which confuses and amuses in equal measure. It is impossible to see more than one metre in any direction, and people appear and disappear surreally in the ether.  Entitled ‘Din Blinde Passager’ (Your Blind Passenger), it is both disconcerting and exciting. The colour of the fog gradually transforms from orange, yellow, blue, purple and finally to white, further challenging your senses.  Adding to this assault on one’s sense of sight, one’s sense of taste is also confronted: the fog tastes of candyfloss. Nothing is as it should be: the fog envelops people unnervingly. Nature controls humans – it’s the fog that seems to be playing with us. Unsurprisingly, Eliasson has a keen interest in natural phenomena, hence his thought-provoking incorporation of mist and light in this work.  

Olafur Eliasson’s Your uncertain shadow (colour), 2010. Photo: María del Pilar García Ayensa/ Studio Olafur Eliasson
Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles
© 2010 Olafur Eliasson

The use of light and shadow is also explored with ‘Your uncertain shadow’. Here, brightly shining lamps cast shadows in four vibrant colours, getting smaller the closer you are to the projecting wall. The different perspectives and the playful element in this piece is particularly entertaining for the younger visitors, who delight in chasing their own shadows. In another room there are several kaleidoscopes, including one which is big enough to be walked through. It feels as though you are part of an experiment. Eliasson’s hope is to provoke visitors into recognising that there is more to these instruments of light than being mere playthings. The reflections, refractions and somewhat bewildering use of space in fact seem to unite the inside of the exhibition with the bustling outside world.  

At the heart of “In real life” is Eliasson’s focus on the environment and the pressing issue of global warming. The array of Scandinavian photographs entitled ‘The glacier series’ displays the melting of glaciers over time, allowing us to reflect on our role in its destruction. It offers a clear yet shocking presentation of the reality of the Arctic ice melting. In the final room, the evidence of our destructive impact on the natural world crescendos. Along one wall, a pin board is covered by news articles and images on this topic. Several films in this room also discuss the exhibition as a whole and tackle the relationship between such artwork and science in an interactive manner. Eliasson does not refrain from making hard-hitting points about the environment. This exhibition educates as well as entertains.  

There is a vast array of material on view, and at times the layout is unclear and confusing. It is too easy to miss some of the highlights, like the fog tunnel, due to the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the exhibition. Perhaps, however, this is part of the fun: we need to navigate the physical reality, as well as the ideas, for ourselves.

If you only visit one gallery this year, make it this one. It is thought-provoking, fun, surprising and serious all at the same time. Eliasson’s originality ensures there is something to capture all imaginations.

Featured image: Olafur Eliasson Big Bang Fountain (2014). Installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2015, Photo: Anders Sune Berg courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles© 2014

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