Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life at the Tate Modern

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I have been a fan of Eliasson’s work since I first saw one of his pieces in person as part of the exhibition Light Show at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago, so naturally I had to go to his solo show at the Tate Modern.

I particularly liked how interactive some his works are, and that some of them specifically rely on audience interaction and participation in order to work- I think this kind of engagement in works of art is key for artists who wish to make their work more accessible to a wider audience. Also being able to participate and interact with the works makes them more enjoyable- you are no longer just a passive viewer but actually a part of the work and this turns it into an experience that the audience will remember.

I was also interested in the display of tests, experiments and maquettes; it is fascinating to see how these have then become full scale pieces and they are beautiful in their own right. I’m really keen on exploring the artist processes but often in exhibitions you don’t get to see any of the work, research, or processes that goes into creating the works on show, so it was inspiring and exciting to see this in such a high profile exhibition. I also liked that these took up the first room of the show as it felt like an insight into the artists’ mind and thinking/making process, before moving on to see some of these fully realised in later rooms.

There was a real sense of playfulness in a lot of the works which really spoke to me, as art displayed in galleries can often feel quite self important and frankly a bit boring- I loved being able to dance in front of the lights, walk through the tunnel of mirrors, peer through the wall at my friend on the other side as our faces became distorted, and get lost in the room full of fog (although it was quite disorientating which I want to discuss further). Art that allows for fun and silliness is always far more memorable to me, as I remember the feelings and experiences for far longer than I would probably remember a static piece of art. The way he utilises mirrors, shapes, and the manipulation of light is incredibly clever and somehow just as dazzling in person as it is in photos.

I want to talk about accessibility a little bit. Whilst most of the spaces in the gallery could be navigated by visitors in wheelchairs, or with other mobility aids, the mirror tunnel (Your Spiral View) unfortunately can only be accessed by steps, which is a shame.
A solution could be to install ramps either side instead of steps- which seems like an incredibly simple solution that I am frankly surprised they did not think of. As well as this some of the other works that are best enjoyed by looking through them are not at a height that wheelchair users could access- some of them might be difficult to replicate and have at a more accessible height, but it is definitely something to consider when creating or installing works with this kind of interaction in mind. Even though there were only a few pieces that were not fully accessible for those with mobility issues it still could affect many visitors enjoyment and experience of the exhibition as a whole. It should also be mentioned that most of the works rely heavily on vision, so those with vision impairments will not get much out of a lot of the works on display. I know that art is a predominantly visual medium but I feel that we should be working towards making art as accessible as possible, and one of the way we can do this is through engaging other senses, such as touch and sound, for example. Some of the works that use water have sound, but for the most part the works are silent, and untouchable. 

I found the fog room (Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas) quite overwhelming due to the temperature, the tight space, and not being able to see properly, so this could pose an issue for people with anxiety or sensory issues, and I found Big Bang Fountain very difficult to spend too long with, again because of sensory issues- it could also prove to be an issue for those with photosensitive epilepsy. Whilst both works are playful and fascinating I think it’s crucial to bring up these issues for discussion so that we, as artists, can consider the impact our work will have on others. I am not saying we shouldn’t make certain kinds of work, but it is imperative that we have these discussions and are aware of the impact it could have.

I was lucky enough to go on a day and time that was quieter, so I was able to experience the exhibition in a much more personal way, which was especially helpful for the works that did make me anxious and cause sensory overload, however I can imagine on a busy day that it would be incredibly overwhelming for people like myself with anxiety/sensory issues. I have been thinking about how difficult a busy day would be for not just people with these issues but again for people with other disabilities and difficulties, and how this might put a lot of people off visiting bigger art galleries and museums. I feel that it is a topic that again needs discussion, but this time not between artists and people with different needs, but between curators and managers of galleries/museums and people with different needs. Limiting entry and timed tickets is of course one way to do this, but it still feels like they oversell tickets a lot of the time to the point where the gallery space is still far too crowded. I wonder if specific days and time slots could be reserved for disabled/neurodivergent people, so that we could experience the exhibitions in our own ways, or if this would feel like we are being excluded from the space when other people are there? It is a tricky topic and something that would need research and time put into in order to come up with a solution that would work best for everyone.

Whilst on the topic of accessibility I feel I have to mention the cost- at £18 per person for a standard ticket, or £17 for concessions, this exhibition is NOT for people on a budget. Children under 12 go free- but when the adults accompanying them are paying so much it really is not affordable for many people. If we truly want the art world to be more accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford it, we need to make exhibitions like this cheaper (or ideally free). I won a Tate Pass for a year as part of my work with the society I set up and ran at uni and if it wasn’t for that myself and my friend who accompanied me would not have been able to afford to go. We are lucky here in England that the main collections of many art galleries and museums are free to visit, but a lot of working class and disabled people do not see themselves represented in the older works of art shown or find them engaging. If we want more people to engage with the arts the works shown In Real Life at the Tate are crucial- as they can expand people’s ideas of what art is and should be- but when exhibition entry fees are so high this prices a huge group of people out who would otherwise really enjoy it and get a lot from it.

So, in conclusion- not at all accessible in terms of cost, and some of the works are particularly inaccessible for the groups of people I have mentioned. Is it beautifully curated and full of stunning work? Absolutely. Is it perfect? No. British art institutions letting down working class and disabled people, as usual.

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