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From foggy tunnels to galleries of rain, Olafur Eliasson’s hypnotic installations highlight the state of the planet.
It would be hard to think of a more “real” and alarming issue than climate change. Entitled In Real Life, the show that Nordic artist Olafur Eliasson opened at the Guggenheim Bilbao last weekend will be on display till the 21st of June, coinciding with the summer solstice.
In Real Life opens with a Waterfall (2019) of spectacular proportions, which is outside, at the Estanque in the back of the museum. A torrential waterfall appears in mid-air, jets 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 titanium plates of the colossal building that houses the museum.
Once inside, the second-floor host Eliasson’s show. The first room is instantly dramatic: a cosmology, as it seems, housed in a single vast vitrine. The hundreds of objects before one – suspended, heaped, static – are captivating. Made of not much more than paper, wood, wire or wax, they are Eliasson’s prototypes.
The Model Room
Helix, hemisphere, Mobius strip, geodesic dome, pyramid or globe: these fundamental forms support everything he creates, in conjunction with mathematicians and scientists. Here, it easy to see the way his mind has been working for over 30 years: interconnecting rings, descending spirals, and silver kaleidoscopes.
And continues with a journey through the elements, including, literally, earth, wind, and fire. Everybody in the art world knows how hypnotic the Danish-Icelandic artist’s work can be. Here moreover the size is important, in the enormous space of the Basque Guggenheim, the scale of the works is, of course, sometimes vast and not for this, less mesmerising.
Shadows and Colours
And as one walk ‘alone’ next space will see one figure multiplied in coloured shadows on the wall. This is Your Uncertain Shadow (Colour) (2010). 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, the spectacle has just begun.
Moss and Waves
Nearby, set directly into the next room there are earlier works, Moss Wall (1994) – a pale vanilla colour, delicate and springy – Scandinavian reindeer moss covers an entire gallery wall. The scent of it is sweet and clean and remembers a landscape, it fills the air with serenity. On the floor, waves of golden water flow slowly back and forth in glass channels, this is Wavemachines (1995).
Mirrors and reflections
In the next room, it seems like one of the previous models has been enlarged to a scale so immense that visitors can walk right through its complicated tunnel of mirrors, watching the world change with their every step. It is Your Spiral View (2002), a cylindrical house of mirrors, composed of hundreds of triangular slices and arranged according to complex geometry. Walking through the sculpture, one catches glimpses of a disembodied arm, a leg, an ear… The visitor is presented with different perspectives at the same time and thus perceives her/his position in new ways. One has the possibility to give up control of space and let oneself be carried away by a “certain uncertainty”.
Olafur Eliasson has been working with mirrors and reflections since the mid-1990s. In this room, one can also find a series of hanging works: Cold Wind Sphere (2012), In Real Life (2019) and Stardust Particle (2014). This latter hanging sculpture combines two irregular polyhedra, embedding one within the other to form a single spheroid made of partially reflective, translucent filter glass and thin steel struts. Depending on the lighting conditions and the position of the viewer, the artwork changes appearance as the partially reflective panels catch the light and reflect the surroundings.
For the artist, these works offer more than just a playful visual experience. Geometry is one of Eliasson’s three main interests alongside the natural world and perception/sensorial experiences.
Having sharpened your senses in these above-mentioned installations, hereunder, Eliasson elicits an emotional response, but non only. If art can have a practical effect on the world, this is the case: prompting not only emotional but also intellectual reactions to urgent issues.
Eliasson was born in 1967, grew up in Denmark but spent his summers in Iceland. Days without nights, ice and therefore glaciers are a big part of the politically progressive north Pole country. Thus, not surprisingly, glaciers are one of the main themes of the artist during the last decade.
Eliasson has long been an environmental campaigner, and an entire room here is devoted to the work The Glacier Melt Series (1999-2019), a set of 30 photographs, grouped in pairs, of Icelandic ice forms taken from the air in 1999 and twenty years later. He locates both images, the one from 1999 and 2019 next to the other. Undoubtedly, the ice has shrunk at an alarming rate. It’s a very simple gesture, but one that many will see, understand and react to.
And more works about the ice. There are paintings made from dropping melting pieces of ice on paper with watercolors, more photographs, and a sculpture, named The presence of absence pavilion (2019), which is a negative cast of an iceberg, large enough to step inside. Nobody visiting this show could fail to be aware of the melting world.
Light, Colour, and Space
Changing the registry, for sheer exhilaration, Your Atmosferic Colour Atlas (2009) probably offers the greatest thrill. Visitors enter a tunnel of luminescent fog, stepping forward uncertainly, hands stretched out into the revolving atmosphere: what pilots used to call nil visibility.
But his true colour is gold. And the glow of it starts in the gallery where Room For One Color (1997) is located, flooding the whole space with a light that turns everyone gold. The lamps installed in the ceiling of a white room emit a single wavelength of yellow light, reducing the observer’s perception of colour to yellow, black and grey tones. As a reaction to the yellow environment, when the observer leaves the space, momentarily perceives a bluish reflection.
Best in Show
A fabulous splash of water caught in a flashlight gleams before one like molten silver dropping from the sky. 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 great after-images in the brain.
The piece resembles the work Eliasson presented —on a much larger scale— at the 2010 edition of Venice Architecture Biennale: Your Split Second House. The space of old Arsenale in Venice was without a doubt much more effective than this. There, likewise, the artist created a cavernous, dark space in which whip-cracks and writhing snakes of water flash in front of one eye, hinting at thrilling structures that are gone before the eyes can adjust to their uncertain forms.
Similarly playing with emotional empathy where 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 truth, Beauty (1993). The sublime effects of nature are achieved through the simplest of means, just pumps, hoses, bulbs, and ideas. A series of ducts installed in a row on the ceiling emit a fine mist in the direction of a beam of light. Thus, from certain points, one can see how a rainbow forms on the water curtain, which varies in intensity or disappears as the visitor approaches or moves away.
The Studio Expanded
The final room in the show exhibits the interests and activities of Eliasson’s Berlin studio, which range, energetically, from the impact of big data to understanding feelings and the art of fermentation (read the full set of resources here). Amongst films and display cases documenting past projects, it is a pin-board wall where team members post articles, images, and news clippings about different urgent issues: climate change, transhumanism, body, identities, big data, or Anthropocene.
Eliasson believes in the impact of art outside the museum, the integrity of his activism is not in doubt: he founded Ice Watch and has launched projects that directly address issues facing the world today, such as renewable energy (Little Sun), and migration (Greenlight – An artistic workshop). But that aspect of his work is not persuasively transferred into the white cube. Maybe too formal or too spectacular. As well as shaping the hearts and minds of culture, the art world must consider its own environmental footprint.