Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life; Takis – review

Tate Modern, London
From foggy tunnels to galleries of rain, Olafur Eliasson’s hypnotic installations highlight the state of the planet, while sculptor Takis’s humanoids and insects are just magnetic

It would be hard to think of a more beguiling show than the Olafur Eliasson survey at Tate Modern. It opens with a waterfall of spectacular proportions and continues with a journey through the elements, including – literally – earth, sea and fire. Anyone who remembers lying dazed beneath Eliasson’s gigantic glowing sun in the Turbine Hall, in 2003, will know how hypnotic the Danish-Icelandic artist’s work can be. The scale is more modest here, but no less mesmerising.

Reindeer moss – a pale vanilla colour, delicate and springy – covers an entire gallery wall. The scent of it is sweet and clean and redolent of the spreading landscapes of memory, a spirit of youth that fills the air with serenity. On the floor, waves of golden water flow slowly back and forth in glass channels, meeting each other in graceful ructions: an effect of soothing familiarity.

Eliasson, who was born in 1967, grew up in Denmark but spent his summers in Iceland. An early work here is called No nights in summer, no days in winter. It takes the form of a single white circle, almost invisible against the white gallery wall, except that its shape is described by tiny flames, cold blue gas at their centre. Nearby, set directly into another wall, is a large glass sphere that turns the world upside down. In this white room the world appears black, somehow, until you walk into the sepulchral darkness of the gallery next door, where the effect is reversed. Each piece conveys the strange extremes of Iceland with all the condensed power of a sonnet.

Look out of the window and it seems to be raining, suddenly, drops spattering the glass and descending in runnels. Yet it is dry as a bone in the summer streets outside. Some of this is simple fun, on the level of illusion, yet it always carries deeper metaphors.

For sheer exhilaration, Your Blind Passenger probably offers the greatest thrill. Visitors enter a tunnel of luminescent fog, stepping forward uncertainly, hands stretched out into the swirling atmosphere: what pilots used to call 10-tenths, or nil visibility. We see the fog, plunge straight into it, and yet we are blind.

The most entrancing experience is possibly the simplest: a room of quiet rain, through which rainbows play in the misty spray. It is titled, with unarguable and irreducible truth, Beauty. The sublime effects of nature are fleeting yet an artist can hold them before you for as long as you wish, in this case with nothing more than a spotlight, a pump and some hoses.

Olafur Eliasson’s Your Blind Passenger at Tate Modern.
‘Sheer exhilaration’: Olafur Eliasson’s Your Blind Passenger at Tate Modern. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

The first room of the show is instantly dramatic: a cosmology, as it seems, housed in a single vast vitrine. The hundreds of objects before you – suspended, heaped, tumbling, static – are beautiful yet humble. Made of not much more than paper, wood, wire or wax, they are Eliasson’s prototypes, the models he keeps (or used to keep: they are now in Sweden’s Moderna Museet) in his studio.

Helix and hemisphere, mobius strip and geodesic dome, pyramid and globe: these fundamental forms underpin everything he creates, often in conjunction with mathematicians and scientists. Here you see the way his mind has been working over 30 years, in interconnecting rings, descending spirals that resemble golden Slinkies, radiant planets and silver kaleidoscopes. One of these models is enlarged to a scale so vast that visitors can walk right through its complicated tunnel of mirrored facets, watching the world change with their every step.

Suns abound, from the tiny solar lamps – the Little Sun project– that Eliasson has patented for use in developing countries, to the vast sun that shone down on the Turbine Hall. His true colour is gold. And the glow of it starts even before the show’s entrance in the Blavatnik Building, flooding the lift and the concourse with a light that turns everyone gold.

Olafur Eliasson’s Cold Wind Sphere (2012), seen through the mirrored Your Spiral View (2001) at Tate Modern.
Olafur Eliasson’s Cold Wind Sphere (2012), seen through the mirrored Your Spiral View (2001) at Tate Modern. Photograph: Imageplotter/REX/Shutterstock

But along with the fire comes the ice. There are ice paintings, made by placing chunks of glacial ice from the coast of Greenland on top of coloured pigment, so that it fades and swells into drifting watercolours. Photographs of Icelandic ice floes, taken over a period of two decades, show the visible shrinkage. Nobody visiting this show could fail to be aware of the melting world. Eliasson has long been an environmental campaigner, and an entire gallery here is devoted to the work done by both the artist and his large collective studio in Berlin, which includes physicists, architects and even chefs, cooking up sustainable food (available at a steep £46 per head, including a ticket for the show, in the rooftop restaurant).

Eliasson believes in the impact of art outside the museum. Some of this is direct to the point of didactic: the ice boulders from Greenland installed outside Tate Modern last year, for instance, gradually dwindling beneath our hot hands. And the workshop gallery, with its interviews, documentaries and banks of data, is pure consciousness-raising.

The integrity of Eliasson’s activism is not in doubt. He founded Ice Watch, and is involved in campaigning for asylum seekers. But that aspect of his work is not easily, or persuasively, conveyed indoors in an art gallery.

It is the active character of the art in this show that counts: its open call for visitors to feel more, sense more and, above all, to do it together. A fabulous splash of water caught in a flashlight gleams before you like pure molten silver dropping from the sky. A tiny patch of ice on a mirror, reflected by a floodlight on to an expanse of gauze, turns into a spectral form, twisting and turning on what is now becoming a silver screen.

And if you walk through one darkened gallery, alone, you will see your figure multiplied in coloured shadows on the wall. Go with others and the shadows begin to proliferate, until the cold white wall seems to be flickering with live fire. The more people, the greater the effect: that is both the point, and the pleasure, of the spectacle.

‘Full of charm’: Takis’s Magnetic Fields (detail), 1969
‘Full of charm’: Takis’s Magnetic Fields (detail), 1969. Photograph: Allison Chipak/Takis © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

There is such a strong affinity between this show and that of the Greek sculptor Takis, shown on the other side of the Turbine Hall, that each seems to lead directly to the other. Takis (born 1925) makes the most whimsical forms out of chunks of discarded metal – insects out of antennae, pugnacious critters out of dials and gauges, glowing humanoids out of old lightbulbs. His figures are just that – anthropomorphic, benign and full of charm: signals and wires in amiable dialogue.

Perhaps his most unique gift to sculpture has been the deployment of magnets, giving graceful motion to ordinarily static forms. This is an active art from first to last, from the marvellous ringing gongs that sound out across the gallery like the music of the spheres, to the firework signals that go off like sudden meteor showers. But best of all is the meadow of crops – nothing more than stiff wires rising from a ground-level plinth – activated by floating magnets at the start of the show. A field set in swaying motion, in the mind’s eye as well as reality, through the fundamental forces of gravity.

Star ratings (out of five)
Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life ★★★★
Takis ★★★★

• Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Modern until 5 January

Takis is at Tate Modern until 27 October

Olafur Eliasson: best in show

Beauty (1993) A fine mist of rain plays in the spotlit darkness of a cave-like gallery. The sight is immediately dramatic - it’s raining inside! - but the longer you stay, the more captivating the sensual effects. Rainbows shiver through the moist air, like a Turner watercolour happening live in three dimensions. And it’s all achieved through the simplest of means, just pumps, hoses and ideas.

Waterfall (2019) You don’t have to buy a ticket to see this vision, which is outside Tate Modern. A torrential waterfall appears in mid-air, high above the concourse, sheets of white water rushing ever downwards. And it is emerging from a humble scaffolding tower. The beauty of the natural phenomenon seems more extreme in comparison to the prosaic metal poles. Niagara Falls in London.

Big Bang Fountain, 2014 by Olafur Eliasson.
Big Bang Fountain, 2014 by Olafur Eliasson. Photograph: Thilo Frank / Studio Olafur Eliasson

Big Bang Fountain (2014)
A strobe light illuminates a fountain of water in a darkened chamber, freezing its movements into a sequence of ever-changing sculptural forms. Each strobe lasts only a fraction of a moment. It’s the big bang and at the same time a vision of silver torsion in a pitch-black gallery: nature plus art. A visual thunderclap that creates terrific after-images in the brain.


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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