Culture

Olafur Eliasson (aka art’s weatherman) is causing a storm at the Tate again

Environmentally aware and socially switched on, 'In Real Life' is the exhibition to see this summer

Olafur Eliasson is an artist who’ll give you an experience you’ll never forget. He’s hauled chunks of the Arctic to public spaces in central London and left them to melt, drawing attention to the disappearing ice caps. His 2003 installation The Weather Project drew over two million people to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to see his burning yellow sun, highlighting the impact of climate on how we live. Combining social themes with a wide ranging variety of mediums, including sculpture, installation and visual techniques, his immersive art is the kind that gets people talking.

And Eliasson’s new exhibition, In Real Life, at Tate Modern from 11 July, is the most comprehensive retrospective of his career so far, bringing together 30 works from the past 30 years – all but one have never been seen before in the UK. The installations introduce natural phenomena, such as rainbows, to the gallery or use reflections to challenge the way we see the world. There’s also a live link broadcasting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into life in his 100-strong Berlin studio. We went behind the scenes with the exhibition’s curator Emma Lewis to find out more.

Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson

TJ: What’s In Real Life all about?

EH: We had an opportunity to show – for the first time ever in the UK – the full range of Eliasson’s artistic practice that has emerged since the early 1990s. We also saw this moment as an opportunity to do something has never been done before in Eliasson’s exhibitions, which is to look at his engagement with other fields like architecture, design, food; or issues like migration, or climate change. We were interested in how Eliasson’s work in these areas informs his artwork and, conversely, what his standpoint as an artist might bring to these fields.

What can visitors expect to see?

The exhibition will show almost 40 of Eliasson’s most pivotal works, spanning the last three decades – from celebrated early installations to his later paintings and sculptural work. In addition to the exhibition, Eliasson’s work will extend onto the terrace outside Tate Modern and for the duration of the exhibition Studio Olafur Eliasson will also collaborate with Tate Eats on a special menu for Tate Modern’s Terrace Bar, based on organic, vegetarian and locally sourced produce that is central to the Studio’s own kitchen in Berlin.

Olafur Eliasson

Your Spiral View (2002)

What inspires Eliasson’s work?

Eliasson consistently seeks to make his art relevant to society, engaging the public in memorable ways both inside and outside the gallery. Driven by his interests in perception, movement, and the interaction of people and their environments, he creates artworks which offer experiences that can be shared by visitors of all ages. His earlier work deals with themes such as space, motion and natural phenomena. Other ideas that preoccupy his work include experiments with light, colour, geometry, perception and participation. As the works reveal the mechanisms behind their own making, Eliasson invites us to consider the physical and psychological processes that contribute to how we experience them. 

Eliasson’s work has a global span. Why did he decide to come to Tate Modern for In Real Life?

In 2003 he became the youngest artist to date to realise the Unilever Commission for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with The Weather Project, which not only transformed the vast architectural space, but 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 we felt it was the right time to welcome him back for his first major exhibition in the UK.

Your Blind Passenger (2010)

What makes Eliasson a significant artist today?

Eliasson represents a totally new model for an artist and as a result he’s an incredibly exciting person to work with. His activities are far and 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. 

What should visitors expect to take away from In Real Life?

We would love for visitors to come away with an understanding of how the way in which one engages with art can have consequences on the way with think about our engagement with society as a whole. Maybe as you become aware of your senses, you also become aware of the people around you and the world beyond. You may, for example, feel that your encounter with the artwork differs depending on whether your interaction is solitary or with others. And you may reflect that your engagement has consequences; that you have the power to influence situations you are in and then that awareness can lead to action. In this sense, we hope it’s a multi-sensory experience, but also thought-provoking.

£18, 11 July 2019 – 5 January 2020, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG tate.org.uk