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Taking the Tate by storm: Olafur Eliasson immerses the audience in art

Emma Lewis, assistant curator of 'Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life' discusses the artist's passion for ecology, climate change and the inherent need to include the audience.

by Georgina Maddox Jun 27, 2019

Olafur Eliasson is known for his all-encompassing, immersive work that unites the worlds of architecture, ecology, food, education, sustainability, climate change, perception and collective activity. His large-scale installations and sculptures artificially create rainbows, suns and melting ice caps that people from all ages, genders and nationalities may interact with. The Danish-Icelandic artist has changed the way people relate to art by creating spectacle and wonderment around his work. What is unique about Eliasson’s work is his use of Brechtian mechanisms and interventions that allow the viewer to become conscious of the fact that they are viewing an artwork which artificially creates the experience. He calls it 'seeing yourself sensing'.

Your spiral view, 2002; stainless steel, mirror, steel 3200 x 3200 x 8000 mm installation view at Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland, 2002 Image Credit: Photographer: Jens Ziehe Boros Collection, Berlin © 2002 Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson is as passionate about climate change and art as much he is about breakdancing, which explains his love for the cross-pollination of various art forms. As a youngster, Eliasson candidly reveals (to climate activist Lily Cole in an interview) that as a child of divorced parents, he wanted his father, Elias Hjörleifsson, to ‘like’ him. His father worked a day job as a cook on a fishing boat, but he also did all kinds of experimental art in the 1970s and the young Olafur thought of him as a great artist. Conversations of Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram led to drawing sessions and soon father and son collaborated on ‘Ocean Drawings’, a set of spontaneous works made by a ball dipped in paint rolling around in a mechanical boat. At 15-years-old, Eliasson had his first solo show, exhibiting landscape drawings and gouaches at a small alternative gallery in Denmark. The rest, they say, is history.   

  • Your uncertain shadow (colour), 2010 HMI lamps (green, orange, blue, magenta), glass, aluminum, transformers Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection, Vienna. Image Credit: María del Pilar García Ayensa/ Studio Olafur Eliasson © 2010 Olafur Eliasson.
  • Olafur Eliasson Image Credit: Runa Maya Mørk Huber / Studio Olafur Eliasson © 2017 Olafur Eliasson

On the eve of his solo exhibition Olafur Eliasson: In real life at the Tate Modern, STIR world has an exclusive tête-à-tête with the assistant curator of the exhibition, Emma Lewis  

Tell us the highlights of the exhibition and what to look forward to.

A major highlight of the exhibition will be Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) 2010. This is a 39-metre-long tunnel filled with fog. You can see only 1.5 metres ahead of you, so become temporarily blinded and your other senses are heightened. Another highlight of the exhibition is a space called The Expanded Studio. Here, there are maquettes and pinboards that evoke the way in which Studio Olafur Eliasson works as well as films showing some of his projects in action – 'Little Sun', 'Green light', and 'Ice Watch' – as well as impressions of his architectural projects and of life in his studio. Every other Wednesday, there will be a link up with the studio showing daily life and a range of projects and activities taking place there. You can ask the studio a question via the hashtag #AskSOE and responses will be screened in this part of the exhibition.

Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) 2010 fluorescent lamps, mono-frequency lamps, fog machine, ventilator, wood, aluminium, steel, fabric, plastic sheet; dimensions variable installation view at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, 2010 Photo: Thilo Frank / Studio Olafur Eliasson Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2010 Olafur Eliasson
What was special about the chemistry of curator and artist and what it was like working with Olafur?

Olafur represents a totally new model for an artist. His activities extend far beyond those of most artists working today. In any given period of time he might be, for example, taking commissions for architectural designs (through his architectural practice Studio Other Spaces), or designs for stage productions; organising support for his Little Sun social business, speaking at conferences and summits dedicated to art and its power to accomplish change, working on ideas for restaurant pop-ups, or meeting with leading thinkers in fields as diverse as food, neuroscience, and urban planning to talk about new ways of understanding the world that will, in turn, inform his artistic practice.

Moss wall 1994 reindeer moss, wood, wire dimensions variable installation view: Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, 2016 Image Credit: Hyunsoo Kim © 1994 Olafur Eliasson Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 1994 Olafur Eliasson
As a curator what would you say have been the important milestones in Olafur’s artistic journey?

An important milestone in Eliasson’s artistic journey was the expanding of his practice beyond the art world, which happened around the time of his mid-career survey 'Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson', at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2007. His network already included architects, geometricians, lighting experts, chefs, choreographers, and others with whom he could research and collaborate on new projects. By the end of the 2000s, these relationships, and those with politicians and business people, became fundamental to the kind of work he was making and the spaces in which his work was shown. He began to occupy new platforms, reaching a much broader audience than before.

Ice Watch Blocks of glacial ice; dimensions variable supported by Bloomberg Installation: Bankside, outside Tate Modern, 2018. Image Credit: Charlie Forgham Bailey © 2018 Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing
What is his special relationship with the Tate given his previous work?

Tate has a long-standing relationship with Olafur Eliasson. In 2003, he became the youngest artist to realise the Unilever Commission for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 'The Weather' project. This not only transformed the vast architectural space, it also inspired new ways of thinking about the environment as a social space and about the kind of twenty-first century museum that we could become. This thinking has had a lasting impact on the way in which artists taking on Turbine Hall commissions have approached their projects ever since. In 2012, Eliasson launched his social business Little Sun at Tate Modern, which sells solar-powered lamps in off-grid areas. A number of his works are also featured in Tate’s collection and it was the right time to welcome him back for his first major exhibition in the UK.

Stardust particle 2014 Stainless steel, translucent mirror-filter glass, wire, motor, spotlight Ø 1760 mm Image Credit: Charlie Tate Photo: Jens Ziehe, 2017 © 2014 Olafur Eliasson

'Olafur Eliasson: In real life' will be up for display at the Tate Modern, London, from July 11, 2019 – January 05, 2020,

  • Cold wind sphere 2012, stainless steel, coloured glass (dark blue, blue and light grey), mirror, colour-effect filter glass (blue), bulb ø 1700 mm Image Credit: Jens Ziehe Centre Pompidou, Paris © 2012 Olafur Eliasson
  • I grew up in solitude and silence, 1991; candle, glass mirror 250 x 498 x 498 mm Installation view at Campbells Occasionally, Copenhagen, 1991 Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 1991 Olafur Eliasson
  • | Room for one colour, 1997; Monofrequency lamps, dimensions variable; Installation view at PinchukArtCentre, Kiev, 2011 Image Credit: Dmitry Baranov Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 1997 Olafur Eliasson.

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18-years-experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIR World, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu and Architectural Digest.

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