• Stephanie Lebas Huber

Climate Catastrophe and Shiny Objects: Olafur Eliasson’s Retrospective at the Tate Modern

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, Tate Modern, London, July 11, 2019–January 5, 2020

Eliasson's oeuvre, repackaged as an ode to the climate crisis is tantalizing and accessible, but most of all heartbreaking.

Olafur Eliasson, Din blinde passager 2010. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The Olafur Eliasson retrospective In Real Life, ongoing at the Tate Modern until January 5, is a crowd pleaser. From touching the soft, textured wall of moss in the opening gallery to tasting from the menu of sustainably-sourced organic and fermented foods that his studio designed for the Terrace Bar, the artist offers museumgoers an open invitation to engage all five senses. The immediacy of this approach speaks to Eliasson’s unrelenting ability to stay on message and stick to the basics, focusing on legibility and accessibility above clever erudition. Most importantly, he finds a way to speak to visitors of all age groups and levels of art historical knowledge. It is a trademark of his that is particularly well-suited to the urgency of his self-appointed mission in this exhibition: to herald the imminent and material threat that awaits the world if climate change is not addressed.

Olafur Eliasson, Moss wall 1994. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

Eliasson’s ability to meet his audience where they are is the greatest strength of this retrospective. It is the same strategy that made his 2003 installation The Weather Project in the Tate’s turbine hall such an overwhelming success. Visitors not only want to partake in a captivating sensorial experience. They also want to see themselves experiencing it in the mirrored surfaces and the myriad of other ways in which he facilitates self-reflection.

The entire exhibition is designed for queuing; a small waiting room precedes his show-stopping installation Din Blinde Passager (The Blind Passenger), 2010. Even in this abbreviated space, Eliasson has taken the opportunity to entertain his patiently waiting viewers, with a mesmerizing spotlight that hypnotizes with its mysterious flickering, fire-like effects. Once past the doors, the “passenger” enters a long corridor filled with an impenetrable man-made cloud originating from an unknowable source. When not totally obscured by the thick, soupy fog, the mirrored ceiling allows viewers intermittent glimpses of their reflection above. Slowly and nearly imperceptibly the hallway transitions from yellow to blue with each step forward. The effect is totally disorienting. Testing the viewer’s trust in his or her own eyes, the installation throws out of balance a lifetime of accumulated sensory experiences that help distinguish up from down. This uncertainty is compounded by the lack of visibility, which reaches a maximum of 1.5 meters in each direction. The room’s outer limits—now totally invisible—only exists as an ontological concept. Totally steeped in the sensorial, the experience verges on the spiritual, calling to mind clichéd descriptions of near-death and “walking into the light.” Much like James Turrell’s work with light and space or Anthony Gormley’s immersive immaterial installations, Eliasson’s engagement techniques tease at offering quasi-Buddhist self-awareness, or it would if the retrospective’s overarching subtext were not so frightening.

Like many of his other installations, The Blind Passenger prioritizes the visitor’s experience of total physical and psychological isolation from the known world, allowing for little opportunity to feel anything other than one’s own sense of dislocation. Eliasson cleverly draws upon his intended audience’s more narcissistic impulses, exploiting the desire to think only about the intense bodily experience or to gaze at one’s own image. This is also true in the following gallery of kaleidoscopic installations, but in a way that destabilizes the entire project. Lost in a galaxy of reflections, this is the place where the beholder, having just achieved mastery over his or her presence, begins to see it slip out of control.

Eliasson’s penchant for using methods targeted at fully absorbing his audience into the experience, is most evident in this “kaleidoscope” gallery. This room features a portal surrounded by a prismatic mirror titled Your Planetary Window, 2019, which provides an otherwise mundane view to the brick buildings just outside of the Tate. An obscenely long line awaits the audience upon leaving the fog-filled hallway to look through it. Nearly all of those standing patiently are parents of young children hoping to give their little ones a glimpse of their own image in mise-en-abyme, recursively refracting into infinity.

Olafur Eliasson, Your planetary window 2019. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

Eliasson maintains an impressive ability to consistently—and perhaps even inadvertently—shift between two registers. He always gives the audience what it wants, prioritizing sensorial pleasure, while occasionally offering total indulgence in the spectacle. We can see ourselves seeing! His installations are not only physically enjoyable, they are also a testament to the beauty of natural science: the light spectrum, the physics of water, and the magic of optical phenomena. They are also perfectly designed for taking photographs and sharing the proof of one’s participation in an important cultural event on social media. On the macro-level, however, the retrospective points to a much more disheartening kind of social commentary, one which Eliasson does not make explicit. Although the artist makes no-such mention of it in his own statements, this exhibition also contains a tacit meta-critique of the general public’s attention span when it comes to environmental causes. The planet is literally on fire, but in order to get—and more importantly keep—this issue in the mind of the public, climate activists will need to find a way to entertain them. Eliasson seems to have taken this to heart in his gentle, prodding approach, but more specifically in his use of mass media techniques that appeal to the brain’s reward center. It is depressing that this sort of tactic is necessary, but perhaps his instincts are correct.

Eliasson’s “glacial works” make up some of the most devastating inclusions in the show. For this, his most recent series, the artist steps away from his artificial approximations of natural phenomena, looking instead to indexically capture the melting process of the glaciers in traditional media. His Glacial Currents, 2018, document the residue pattern of pooling water left by an ice shard that he had placed on top of pigmented paper. Coaxing the water into a circular format, he otherwise lets the melting process go to work in the manner of a dystopian Helen Frankenthaler. Standing nearby is his bronze sculpture The Presence of Absence Pavilion, 2019, molded from glacial ice. As the title suggests, the work asks the viewer to contemplate what has been lost in the negative space. Preserving these life forms for posterity by such death mask-like methods, Eliasson draws upon the cognitive dissonance implied in appreciating the aesthetic beauty of their disappearance. Unlike an endangered butterfly pinned inside of a glass display case, the extinction of these life forms threatens the very existence of life on dry land, putting the human race at risk for endangerment. That these works date to the last two years is even more disheartening; their presence casts a melancholic tone over even his earlier, more optimistic installations. This source material is also personal for Eliasson given his deep attachment to his parents’ homeland of Iceland, which is now the site of the first-recorded glacier death.

Olafur Eliasson, Presence of absence pavilion 2019. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

Just before the exhibition comes to an end, Eliasson once again gives his audience another shot of instant gratification with Uncertain Shadow (colour), 2010, a light-based installation that projects five differently colored shadows of the viewing subject on the walls. Large crowds tend to congregate in this space, once again looking for themselves within the mass of people. This photo-friendly installation has been the most frequently reproduced in all of the press coverage, and it is easy to see why. Audiences love it and the set up makes for interesting and dynamic photo compositions. It is, however, in the grand scheme of Eliasson’s vision for this exhibition, the least interesting work on display, leaving little to contemplate other than its ability to engage his public’s desire to verify its own existence.

By the end of the exhibition, Eliasson’s playful reference to the “real” in his title In Real Life truly asserts itself. After all, many of his works are virtual simulacra of naturally occurring and biological phenomena. While there is no reason why the “real” should not also encompass man-made illusions, his suggestive title is one more example of how the retrospective opens up Eliasson’s past work to a new, choose-your-own-adventure style of interpretation. If this exhibition is to be seen as a catalyst for reflection on the climate crisis, one person’s tech-utopianism might can be another person’s nightmare. Eliasson is brilliant at modelling the potential for human ingenuity, and indeed the exhibition might prove inspiring to those who see manmade invention as the ultimate climate solution. Others may view the show as a reflection of the kind of alienation generated by technology. Or it could be foreshadowing another frightening proposition. The artificial rain, artificial fog, and his famous artificial sun – are replicas of natural processes about to be thrown into chaos. In fifty years, the idea of creating man-made surrogates of "normal" conditions for future generations to enjoy might not be such a crazy idea. Worst of all, the youngest children so joyfully participating in this exhibition’s interactive installations, are completely ignorant to the situation.

In his own remarks throughout the exhibition, Eliasson extends a tentatively optimistic message about the potential to inspire action on climate change through art. He offers an homage to nature’s most ephemeral qualities and taps into the visceral experience of its beauty that both he and the viewing audience have come to appreciate. Depending on the viewer, this approach may just work. However, in a world so attuned to relying upon user-generated content to give form to the social world, Eliasson’s exhibition is a reminder that handing over the reins to the masses can be an effective method – but it can also be totally unpredictable.