Olafur Eliasson’s ‘In Real Life’: Artistic authority and political art

Bea Nolan


‘In Real Life’ is Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s ambitious return to the Tate. The exhibition is made up of works spanning 27 years with large installations dominating the gallery space. The exhibition takes the viewer on a journey through the elements by introducing natural phenomenon into the gallery space.


Many pieces use reflections and shadows to experiment with perception. Your Spiral View (2002) results from the artist’s research into complex geometry as the viewer enters a tunnel of carefully positioned mirrors that have the effect of fragmenting reality and encourage the viewer to reconsider how they use their eyes. In Beauty (1993) nozzles are attached to a punctured hose spray to produce a curtain of fine mist, a beam of light is then used to produce a rainbow in the falling water that shifts in intensity or disappears depending on the viewer’s position. Eliasson has stressed in interviews his desire to hand the authority of art to the visitor and in Beauty (1993) this is achieved by the fact that every person in the room views a unique rainbow produced by their specific location.


In the exhibition piece Your Uncertain Shadow (2010) the people in the room become the producers of the artistic contentThe piece shows the influence of colour theory as green, magenta, orange and blue lights are combined to illuminate the opposing wall with a bright white light. When a visitor enters the space, they block each coloured light from a slightly different angle and their shadow appears on the wall as an array of five differently coloured silhouettes.


The exhibition engages with society and the environment and allows Eliasson to experiment with what an artist’s perspective can bring to political issues such as climate change. Eliasson has claimed that by allowing the viewer to become the producers of the art it empowers them to believe themselves capable of action in their own lives. The exhibition is overtly political and expresses Eliasson’s view that nature has become humanised. The first piece in the collection Waterfall (2019) is characteristic of this idea as it represents the fusion of nature and technology in an optimistic way and questions how we can use technology and modernity to help our man-made climate crisis. The visible infrastructure of the waterfall calls attention to the way technology can aid the larger natural forces that are represented in the falling water.


In works such as Beauty and Your Uncertain Shadow Eliasson privileges the artistic process over the finished piece. By allowing the viewer to become involved in the creative process and be a part of the art itself, he pushes back on the idea of art as a commodity and places the viewer in a position of autonomy and authority over the space around them. Since the exhibition also works against the normalised gallery space by bringing outside elements inside, this authority over the gallery space extends to a suggested authority over the world outside. By emphasising the process over the product and putting the subject in control the exhibition not only politicises the artistic work but asks the viewer to do so too.

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