Olafur Eliasson. In Real Life at the Tate Modern

Rain, running water, fog and moss. The natural world all for only eighteen quid. Could you get any more London?

Olafur Eliasson, Moss Wall (1994) Picture Credit: National Geographic

This article isn’t a criticism of Olafur Eliasson. Though his installations are bright and easily compelling, there is more to him than coloured fog and constructed rainbows.

Eliasson’s work focuses on some of the most pressing issues of our time. His artistic influences are sourced from nature and the growing effects of climate change. Through his immersive installations the artist attempts to create in us a sense of responsibility to these global issues, leaving us with a heightened awareness of ourselves and the people around us.

The show certainly leaves you with a heightened awareness of the people around you.

Din Blinde Passager (Your Blind Passenger) is a ninety foot long corridor of brightly illuminated fog. You are at first almost blinded with the bright white you step into (as the door opens the impossibility of not letting out a gasp of awe is a beautiful thing). You can see only a metre and a half in front of you. In your semi-obscured journey you start to notice less of the obvious and more of the subtle-the quiet changes of colour and brightness, the thick silence.

Olafur Eliasson, Din Blinde Passager (2010) Picture Credit: Pinterest

Or you will firstly queue for an inordinate amount of time, and once inside you will notice other people’s phone lights, and the walls appearing through the people-thinned fog, and the same noise that was outside being now in a claustrophobic and blinding plywood tube. The children are whining. They have already seen better than these seemingly cheap amusement park thrills. Needless to say, the whole thing looks better on Instagram. In fact, before I was even fully aware of what I was doing, I had photographed myself in the fog tunnel. #ashamed.

In a culture where self-awareness and the aptitude to self-publicise seems innate, be it on the streets or in the museum, we have become both audience and exhibit. This thought came to me as I crushed myself into an overfull lift on the eighth floor. Fifteen of us squashed and silent on the very slow journey down to the exhibition. The lift doors opening on each level showed us the surprised expressions of the public who spotted us for that moment, our hot and unhappy party making our way downwards into the harsh orange light that announced the show. Fore-bringers of a catastrophic future.

The exhibition is a far cry from 2003’s The Weather Project. Eliasson’s fabulously successful instillation of a huge sun in the Turbine Hall can arguably be seen as one of the factors establishing Tate Modern as our cultural guide to important and exciting contemporary art. What changed?

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003) Picture Credit: Tate Modern

Tate Modern has the money and the popularity to be making waves within the art world, yet it consistently chooses to hold unimaginative, click-baity and overly-expensive exhibitions that it knows will draw in big audiences and bigger money. The same could be said for the Ashmolean’s recent retrospective of Jeff Koons. An obvious money grabber thinly veiled with the following cutesy story. In 2017 Oxford University’s Edgar Wind Art History Society awarded Koon’s their honorary membership for outstanding contribution to visual culture. Koons flew to Oxford to accept the award in person and stopped off at the Ashmolean. Seduced, he announced plans for a show there just a year later. In my opinion, it is by no means positive news that members of the Art History department of one of the world’s top universities choose such a vacuous, moneyed and unoriginal artist to win this lauded prize. But, perhaps also being one of the world’s richest, it is entirely appropriate?

Anyone without the privilege of visiting an exhibition on press-night will find themselves planted straight onto an ever-familiar audience conveyor belt. It crucially diminishes audience experience. In such a crowded environment there is little opportunity to gain any kind of perspective on the art. Of course everyone can and should experience art. But we should all be given the space to do it in. The Tate are a victim of their own success in making art accessible for all.

Nature is best experienced alone, as is the work of Olafur Eliasson. It is becoming increasingly difficult to do so in both. In a somewhat roundabout way, pushing through crowds in a discombobulated room of strange man-made objects made me realise what Eliasson had been getting at. Thanks, I think, Tate Modern.

Written by

Somewhat lackadaisical art historian. Freelance arts writer and editor. Very often not writing about art. Let’s talk: www.francescaramsay.co.uk

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