Olafur Eliasson: Elemental Mastery of Space and Light

In Real Life. CREDIT: Own Photo

Eliasson’s In Real Life exhibition enters its last month at London’s Tate Modern gallery, and offers a feast of sensory exploration. The Icelandic-Dane, whose approach featured in the most recent episode of The Art of Design on Netflix, plays with how we perceive light, space, movement and our surroundings, using a range of natural elements to supplement the viewer’s experience. The artist states his main goal as follows:

“I’m carefully following more sustainable ways of coexisting on earth.”

The Exhibition brings a number of artworks never seen in the United Kindom. Arguably the greatest of the “wow” moments was tucked away in a small dark room — the Big Bang Fountain. A simple but astonishingly effective work in which a small water fountain is illuminated for nano-seconds by a flash of blue light every few seconds. This produces a series of unique still images for the viewer of water frozen in space. The intricate and fragmented water sculptures are juxtaposed by the constant sound of the water.

Big Bang Fountain. CREDIT: Studio Olafur Eliasson

Elsewhere, Eliasson plays with colours, shadows and reflections to experiment on how we perceive and interact with the world. Another beautiful use of water and light creates a rainbow in his 1993 work Beauty. Its just a punctured hose which shoots a film of fine mist from the ceiling of a dark room, but the shift in the intensity based on the viewer’s perspective makes for an atmospheric experience. Here I am walking behind it nonchalantly:

Video of Beauty. CREDIT: Own

In Uncertain Shadow, Eliasson uses a combination of projectors and the bodies of visitors to create a number of coloured shadows. Akin to the Forest of Flowers in teamLab Borderless Tokyo(check out my article), the guests become an integral part of the artwork.


One of the more exciting works revolves around a foggy tunnel, Your Blind Passenger employs fog and lighting to restrict the perception of visitors as they make their way through a long passageway. The ethereal fog shifting from white to a dark yellow. Spooky. The objective here is a portrait of a shifting urban dystopia in which we do not reduce air pollution. Eliasson is telling us that this pea souper may be our future.

Your Blind Passenger. CREDIT: Own Photo

Indeed, these works are all different segments of Eliasson’s own perspective on issues of climate change. He hits this home in the last room with portraits of glaciers 20 years apart, one of the more affecting parts of the exhibition:

Glacier melt series 1999/2019. CREDIT: Own Photo

This series of 45 wall-mounted images, taken at the same time of year, reveal the changes which have happened between 1999 and 2019.

“I don’t want to use a fear-based narrative, but we’re living in a climate emergency” — Olafur Eliasson

The impact of melting glaciers on Eliasson is clear in the latter stages of his exhibition. indeed his Glacial Currents watercolours from 2018 uses melted glacial ice to displace pigment on a sheet of paper

Glacial Currents, Yellow/Sienna. CREDIT: Own Photo

This exhibition invites us to consider our own carbon footprint and impact on the planet by different means. Indeed, a great deal of Eliasson’s work hinges on principles of sustainability, visitors are even invited to touch the Moss Wall, made of reindeer moss from Iceland woven into a wire mesh and mounted. He stresses the importance of tactile perception:

Moss Wall. CREDIT: Own Photo

“We have eyes in our fingers, too. I want people to touch. To touch is about simply acknowledging the physical. We see things, yes — but to feel and act and have a relationship with the world does require an element of embodiment”.

— Olafur Eliasson

The combination of the real and the virtual is used to great effect in How Do We Live Together — where a semicircular arc is united with its reflection to produce one giant ring.

How do we Live Together. CREDIT: Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson moves to space with his Science Fiction-infused Your Spiral View, a series of steel plates which produces an otherworldly psychedelic tunnel. An apologetic placard on the side states that they tried to make the tunnel accessible but were not able to.

Your Spiral View. CREDIT: Own Photo

Ending at the beginning, an Inside the Artist’s Studio-esque room which greets the guest on entering the exhibition. Here, Eliasson showcases his models and frames, which give some insight into his study of geometry, colours and movement. Some of these are prototypes for his final work, others are just experiments with geometry.

The Model Room. CREDIT: Own Photo

Let’s hope this man has many other ideas lurking in his mental studio.

‘Art will change the world’ — Olafur Eliasson


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