Olafur Eliasson: An artistic journey ‘round the world
“There is no artist on the planet operating on a more global scale than Olafur,” begins one of the opening remarks on Eliasson’s work from Netflix’s Abstract documentary dedicated to the artist. But what does it mean? How global can art really be? Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition In Real Life at the Tate Modern closes on Sunday, January 5th, presenting the last chance for Londoners to go and find out for themselves.
There is a good reason Eliasson keeps coming back to London. His conception of art has a lot to say to the diverse audience of the capital. Drawing inspiration from natural phenomena and the environment, his art works have worked with light, colour, reflection and space, ideas common to all parts of the world. It has, therefore, been a natural next step when he started creating and contextualizing his work around climate change a few years down the line.
“To him, changing the world means changing the way we experience the world,” follows another comment in the documentary. At a time when the world faces many changes, voluntary or not, the experience of it seems both crucial to taking action and difficult to achieve. How can someone living a comfortable life in London experience the effects of climate change that take place on islands near Hawaii or near the Arctic Circle?
Eliasson’s artwork’s answer: by bringing it closer.
Last year, the artist brought 20 blocks of ice from Greenland to be displayed in front of Tate Modern and in the City of London financial district until they melted down. The Ice Watch brought people face to face with a disappearing piece of nature they would probably never encounter otherwise. The same installation previously became the talk of the town in Paris (during the UN Climate Conference) and in Copenhagen (marking the publication of UN’s climate change assessment report) in 2014.
Other works, some of which are currently displayed at Tate Modern, speak of climate changes in less invasive but equally striking ways — paintings and sculptures made directly from melting ice blocks or a series of photographs of Icelandic landscape taken 20 years apart. These items have travelled around the world to connect a global audience
106 exhibitions in 24 countries on 6 continents
Exhibitions of the Danish-Icelandic artist have taken place on 6 out of 7 continents, excluding only Antarctica. In his early years, most events happened ‘at home’ in Northern and Western Europe. The first overseas destination was in the United States, a country which hosted the highest number of Eliasson’s exhibitions over the years, 20 out of 106. Germany showcased the artist’s work all of 19 times, taking a second place, while also becoming home to his Berlin-based studio in 1995.
As his work became more popular and the number of exhibitions multiplied, they eventually reached Asia, Australia, South America and finally, in 2015, also Africa. Although he remains most present in the Western world, his exhibitions appeared in 24 countries overall.
Beyond the world of art
The artist’s impact extends beyond the world of art. In September this year, he was named UNDP’s Goodwill Ambassador for climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, he spoke at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos where he expressed his belief that “art helps us identify with one another and expands our notion of ‘we’ — from the local to the global”.
This idea runs throughout Eliasson’s creations. His works often engage and challenge our five senses, speak to what makes us human, using the direct experience as a common tongue, a way to communicate, across borders.
Outside of exhibition spaces, a project called the Little Sun brings light to communities without access to the electrical grid via portable solar lamps. Those contribute to a more sustainable development around the world, in countries first introduced to the artist in remote villages instead of galleries. The Little Sun project was officially launched at Tate Modern in 2012.
In Real Life at Tate Modern, the most visited attraction in the UK
Eliasson returns to Tate Modern every few years. His exhibition ‘The Weather Project’ which was on display for 5 months from October 2013 attracted two million visitors to spend time in the light of an artificial sun and explore the idea of weather, natural or not.
These climate-related projects and exhibitions took place in contrast to criticism over BP’s sponsorship of Tate which ended in 2017. Eliasson’s current exhibition In Real Life mentions this controversy in its list of resources on topics that inform and inspire the creative process at his studio in Berlin.
Although it is too soon to say whether these institutional decisions could have a bigger impact on visitor numbers in the future, 2018 was the first year Tate Modern overtook the British Museum — still proudly supported by the likes of BP or Saudi Aramco — in terms of number of visitors, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA).
It should be interesting to see whether this becomes a trend following the year of the climate crisis conversation once 2019 numbers are released, and to what extent they would be impacted by Eliasson’s exhibition.
Written for my Data Journalism class at City, University of London in January 2020, as part of the Erasmus Mundus MA in Journalism, Media and Globalisation. (Also as a tribute from a fan!)