• Colin Sterling

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

Experiential Design in the Anthropocene

Something needs to change, and Olafur Eliasson knows it. In the sixteen years that have elapsed since the Danish-Icelandic artist installed The Weather Project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the climate and ecological emergency has only become more acute. The eerie monochrome light of this early work brought home an uncanny sense that the atmosphere itself was somehow out of joint. Now, with In Real Life – a retrospective spanning forty works and almost thirty years – Eliasson underscores his belief that art might change how we perceive and relate to the world. The gravity and urgency of this project is met however with a disorienting levity that foregrounds immersion, embodiment and above all experience in its quest to impart visitors with ‘a new sense of responsibility’. In the context of a broad turn towards the immersive in all aspects of cultural life, what can we take from this experiential mode of ecological attunement, which seems purpose made for the Instagram generation?

On one level Eliasson’s approach is simple: create mind-bending artworks that demand to be experienced and that challenge preconceived notions of space, time and the environment. Big Bang Fountain (2014) is a clear example of this strategy at work. A small fountain in the middle of a pitch black room is illuminated by a strobe light, which catches short bursts of water at ‘the apex of their trajectory, freezing them in the frenzied and globular form they take at the instant before they are pulled down by gravity’ (an effect somewhat diminished by the camera flashes of fellow visitors). In the early work Moss Wall (1994) meanwhile a huge vertical expanse of lichen is allowed to shrink and fade as it dries, before the installation is watered and the moss expands to fill the space with its fragrance. These carefully orchestrated (and precisely engineered) installations seem to confront a widespread feeling that nature and culture have been falsely separated in the post-industrial world – an ongoing theme in Eliasson’s work.

While the darkened room and strobing effects of Big Bang Fountain produce a distinct form of experiential encounter, Eliasson’s ongoing commitment to documenting the glaciers of Iceland offers another way of viewing water ecologies. Within the context of the exhibition, this quiet series of aerial photographs acts as something of a resting place – an opportunity to view rather than inhabit the shifting terrains of the world. Perhaps for this reason there was a notable lack of smartphone photography in this room when I visited, almost as if the absence of a clearly defined – and instantly instagrammable – experience discouraged visitors from documenting the space. The event of climate change recorded in the slowly retreating glaciers of Iceland cannot compete with the constructed event of Eliasson’s experiences.

On this point it is worth noting that the visitor experience on offer at Tate Modern reaches beyond the exhibition itself, with the lifts, stairwell, café and urban realm all hosting works by the artist. This totalising approach seeks to emphasise the role of art outside the gallery space, even while the enclosed, ritualistic nature of the exhibition provokes a definite frame for certain encounters. Din blinde passager from 2010 for example fills a long narrow corridor with brightly illuminated fog, severely reducing the capacity for sight and amplifying the other senses. By re-modelling experience in this way Eliasson seeks to disorient the visitor, but to what end? Stumbling from the fog, where are we headed now?

One possible answer to this question may be found in the final room of the exhibition, which takes the form of an ‘Expanded Studio’. For some time now Eliasson has collaborated on projects that go beyond the traditional realm of art practice, working on large scale buildings, a cook book, an art school and dance programmes. Gathered together here these projects show how art in its broadest sense might directly address some of the most urgent issues facing the world today, from migration to climate change. As a space to explore and interrogate rather than ‘experience’, the Expanded Studio works to ground the rest of the exhibition, revealing the depth of research that goes into creating Eliasson’s deceptively simple art.

Along one side of the Expanded Studio is a room length pin-board of books, articles and concepts structured around various ‘key terms’. These include Atmosphere, Journey, Data and – somewhere around the middle – Experience. Here the visitor is posed a simple yet profound question: If we can only know reality through our experience, then how should we understand the production of experience itself? Eliasson’s work is fundamentally concerned with how to model experiences, but it also seeks to shape future thought and action as a result of these experiences. The problem here of course is that the nature of experience always exceeds what is planned and anticipated. Shouldn’t we then also ask: how are such experiences consumed? Or, more pertinent still, how are they experienced as part of an ecology of experiences, stretching from the banal to the terrifying, the ephemeral to the obdurate? Only by situating art within this wider ecology of experiences might we begin to sketch out the possibilities for change that somehow persist in the age of the Anthropocene.

Some key lessons / considerations:

  • Complex ideas can be distilled and experienced in deceptively simple ways

  • Any mode of experiential design must be understood within a broader ecosystem or ‘ecology’ of experiences

  • Show your working out

  • How does the desire to shift environmental subjectivities push up against the inherent consumerism of so many contemporary experiences?

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