Olafur Eliasson – In Real Life

This show at the Tate Modern presents 30 years of Olafur Elisson’s work. It is excellent – an enjoyable and thought-provoking crowdpleaser. And yes do expect crowds, but in a strange way, that’s also what makes the show so great.

My favourite thing about the show was watching how other people interacted with his works. And I don’t mean that as a disservice to the works themselves. I mean I felt I witnessed  and learnt something fascinating about how people interact with art, each other and the world today. This overall experience felt as much of the show as the individual pieces. It feels like the macro effect of putting 30 years of his work in one place. It’s quite an incredible thing to experience and be part of. I was not immune, I explored, I peeked and peered and took selfies. I think this is some of the ‘in real life’ in the title of the show.

Here’s a run down of my highlights with thoughts and reflections along the way.

001 Geometry that wows

Maths and shapes aren’t normally something which results in noses pressed up against glass panes. But it turns out if you have a large studio team, are fascinated by shapes and work closely with a mathematician/architect, in this case Einar Thornstein, over a long period of time, you end up with a lot of cool models. Artfully pile lots, hundreds -perhaps?,  of these into a large glass box and noses will be pressed up against it. I felt like I was looking at a 3D version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks …

The Model Room

002 Artist does Science Museum

As I looked at many of his works, I had strong flashbacks of childhood visits to science museums as well as GCSE physics.  He plays with reflection, shadows and waves. You can see him exploring the physical properties of materials and starting to actively involve the observer too.


Wave Machines, 1995
Window Projection, 1990
How do we live together? 2019

003 Watching you, Watching me

There are distorted glass orbs to peer into, artificial rain in windows  and huge multicoloured kaleidoscopes to marvel at and walk through. They all make you, the visitor, curious and active in the experience. You see other people engrossed and you want to have a look. You cannot see what makes it interesting from afar, but their attention is held. It is the uncertainty, the unknown, the thing to be discovered that attracts you. And when you’re up close it engages your childlike, innate sense of exploration – What if I move this way? Where’s my reflection? What makes that shadow? etc.

004 On a Big Scale

If you use social media, read the arts pages in the newspapers or walk past bus stops in London, there are two works in this show, that might already have crossed your path. They are the biggest scale works and most selfie-inducing works. Interestingly both were made in 2010, before selfies became a mainstream thing (see graph below).

Searches for ‘selfie’ over time.

One work is big and colourful – ‘Your Uncertain Shadow’ and the other is long and opaque ‘Your Blind Passenger’. Both induce the audience to play and explore the space around them and consider how they interact with others around them too – Why is your shadow on top of mine? Am I about to bump into you? etc. And if you want to think about it a bit more, you can find some deeper meanings there too.

I particularly loved ‘Your Blind Passenger’ a  39 metre long passage, filled with a fog which limits your visibility to 1.5m. As the people ahead of you enter the passage, in a few steps they disappear. Softly and quickly fuzzed away by the fog. It was fascinating and magical. It made me think of olden times, journeys across moors on horseback and medieval streets lit by gas lamps. People setting off on a journey and not knowing if they’ll be seen again.  And all of that from a corridor filled with an aerated sugar solution!

005 Nature and Earth

Eliasson’s work has long considered the natural world and he is clearly concerned about the impact of climate change. There are walls of moss, works made with melting glacier and documentation of the changing Icelandic landscape. He’s not just an artist experimenting with materials. He’s also trying to record and change the world too.

006 Thinking widely and deeply

The show concluded with huge pinboards smothered in research and reading across many different topics. As an artist he is drawing on thinking from politics to mathematics, from social science to environmental science. Seeing connections, thinking across disciplines, looking at the world, asking questions. Everything that I value in an approach to life and work. I love seeing how his work has sprung from this way of thinking. I too want to be, (and try to be), free-wheeling and unbounded, unfettered and unlimited in my thinking.


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