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Nothing lasts forever: Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993. Courtesy Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

Tate Modern 

Closes January 5, 2020

By BRIAN NG, October 2019 

A run club buddy told me the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Tate Modern (on until 5 January 2020) was great for little kids. Primary research indicated it was full of installations. I found out/was reminded that Eliasson was the guy who puts melting icebergs in public places. And in an age where a visit to an art exhibition does not exist without a picture of the attendee going, I expected to have to ‘experience’ the works with others, many of whose ‘experience’ included getting the shot.

That’s why it’s interesting when an artist leans into the social media-ness of it all. Eliasson plays into the performativity of the viewers by performing himself. For instance, take his work Beauty, which is a wall of falling mist with a spotlight pointed at it so that a rainbow whose weave consistently shifts and bends. Inspired by the waterfalls of his homeland (and the somewhat obnoxious, though apt, name), you can just see it as ideal social media fodder. The room may be blackened, as to focus your attention on the artificial rainbow, but the spotlight is placed far back enough that one’s face can also be illuminated in a photo, if that’s what you choose. There is, of course, a new work called Waterfall that’s installed outside the building, that’s a bunch of erected scaffolding and pouring water down to emulate the ones you find in nature. The choice to leave the scaffolding unshrouded is not only reminiscent of the behind-the-scenes content that does well on social, but also seems to be a comment on the way we construct our presentations of nature, and of the images we share. If you were to take a picture with Waterfall and post it, you may as well caption it with “look at all this fakery!” 

Olafur Eliasson, Din blinde passager. Courtesy Tate Modern

On the other side of the coin, perhaps, is the work Din blinde passager, or Your blind passenger in English: a 39m-long corridor that is filled with artificial fog. The show notes say you can see 1.5m ahead of you, so depending on how you’re traversing it, you may see other participants around you, or your friends, or you could go it completely alone. It isn’t entirely monotonous: There are color changes, from white to marigold, through a transitional violet and into an artic blue; you can also see the seams where the ceiling and floor meets the walls, plus the ventilators and other wall accoutrements. Basically, you are not alone, or lost, if you choose not to be. But that’s the point, I feel, of the artwork: to be completely alone, immersed in a color, with no one around (that’s the point of alone though, huh). It reminds me of the time I hiked the Tongariro Crossing (a famous hike in New Zealand), where bad weather had hit the trail and I could only just see my outstretched hand. I found my way/the trail by looking down for footprints, by trusting that I could walk another step in front, and the reassuring trail markers every few feet. At the end of the crossing, I found out half the group who’d gone in with me had turned back. The thing is, if you trust yourself and are comfortable being by yourself, you have nothing to fear. Maybe that’s why I loved Your blind passenger so much — that in this exhibition where everything is being documented on people’s cameras, that I could literally have them out of sight. I walked the work twice (and on entering the second time, I told some other people who had just walked into the antechamber, to “go through the door and don’t freak out”). The lack of clarity didn’t stop people from taking photos; the Tate Modern location tag on Instagram has a bunch of photos of people, or their silhouettes, trying to pose inside the fog. A curious tidbit for taking pictures inside: When shooting without a person in shot, the camera has no focal point to autofocus on, so it freaks out; the limited selection of colors our screens have (this is when you notice the limitations of technology vs nature) forces rings of shades to form, because the camera also cannot handle the singularity you’re seeing. 

Olafur Eliasson, Big Bang Fountain. Courtesy Tate Modern

There was another work, Big Bang Fountain, in which a wave machine makes water jump out of its basin, and then a light flashes at the water body’s movement’s apotheosis, just enough to leave an imprint on the back of your eyelids, and have you wondering what you just saw. After a while, when you realize what’s happening, you start noticing half the people standing around this circular basin have their phones out and are either filming, or trying to get a picture of the flying water, doing their best to catching the fleeing moment. Perhaps if we were to all work together, and capture the moment from all angles of the circle, we may have a shot at seeing the form in front of us. I also thought of ectoplasm and the pictures of old-time psychics, and thought maybe it’s all a collective illusion.

While there is an emphasis on each person being able to experience the works individually, it is somewhat unexpected that the posters of photographs of the works available for purchase incorporate people — a girl with an extended, as if conducting, stands with her back to you in the one for Beauty, there are two figures bathed in marigold in the one for Din blinde passager, two people’s faces glows alongside the water in Big Bang Fountain. It’s like the person (or people) who directed the photographs wanted to make sure that you would always have to be awed alongside others.

Olafur Eliasson, Your uncertain shadow (color). Courtesy Tate Modern

The exhibition itself, otherwise, does seem to have taken the idea of child’s play to heart: It starts in a model room, and then you have free rein to ‘play’ with whatever you want. There is a suggested route, printed on the pamphlet you’re handed as you walk in, but you are encouraged to do whatever you want. People would walk back and forth to form different planes in Your uncertain shadow (color), where different colored versions of your shadow are projected onto a white wall — I was one of the few who boogied across the rays, by the reason that people should have something fun on their videos. There are Zometool construction pieces in The Expanded Studio for you to build structures, though most people seemed to want to make rigid pom-poms; a gallery assistant was taking apart such ‘creations’ constantly in the time I spent in the Studio — everything is truly ephemeral in this exhibition, it seems.

Olafur Eliasson, Eine Beschreibung einer Reflexion (A description of a reflection). Courtesy Tate Modern

The ephemerality permeates all the major themes Eliasson and his studio explore in this retrospective’s works: climate change, perception, human interaction. The two rooms dedicated to the decline of glacial ice, in addition to the fame of Ice Watch, which exhibited (as such) last year in London, are more apt these days in the time of climate strikers. The constant change in light in the kaleidoscope works, and Beauty, Big Bang Fountain, and Eine Beschreibung einer Reflexion (A description of a reflection), create artworks that are not only different for each viewer, but are also in constant flux for the viewers — it brings to mind the maxim, too, that no two people will ever interpret an image or their surroundings in the exact same way. The fact that people aim to create some sort of snapshot of their experiences is a prime example of the individuality, while also serving as a futile exercise in being able to encapsulate the whole. It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: you can only measure either the position or velocity of an object, at the quantum level; when zoomed in extremely closely, you will not know what’s exactly going on, because it’s not possible. 

There’s the adage that we should “live in the moment” and “dance like no one’s watching”, so that we can get out of our heads and actually see, really see what’s going on around us. In a world where things are changing by the second, where your Instagram feed is practically endless, glaciers are cracking, and people’s digital lives are now intertwined with the “irl” lives more than ever, is there hope that we can ever see, really see, the moment we’re living in? In Eliasson’s latest exhibition, the answer is taken away from us; we must deal with the fact that what you are witnessing will be gone, if not now, then soon. WM

Brian Ng

Brian Ng is a writer, originally from New Zealand, and is currently based in London.

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