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Olafur Eliasson – In Real Life review, Tate Modern: grand ambition, little substance

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 Your spiral view 2002
 Your spiral view 2002 Credit: © 2002 Olafur Eliasson

When I heard that Olafur Eliasson had created four waterfalls as a public artwork on New York’s East River in 2008, I assumed, not unreasonably, that the Danish-Icelandic artist had somehow bent the force of this tributary of the mighty Hudson to his will, and produced actual waterfalls. 

This, after all, is the man who famously made the sun come out in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall – with his now iconic 2003 work The Weather Project; whose 120-strong Berlin studio includes teams of architects, art historians, designers and filmmakers, and whose statements on issues such as climate change and the migrant crisis read more like high-level governmental missives than the utterances of a mere artist.

So, it is a little disappointing to encounter a recreation of one of these falls in Tate Modern’s grounds, as part of this eagerly awaited retrospective, and find that it is simply a scaffolding frame with recycled water pouring off the top. Well, what else would it be? But this gap in expectation between grandiose aspirations and relatively modest impact gives a fair foretaste of an exhibition that, among moments of startling, otherworldly beauty, leaves you wanting slightly more substance than you actually get.

The Weather Project, one of the most visited and reproduced artworks of the 21st century – and one of the very few pieces of contemporary art just about everyone who’s seen it seems to like – achieved its spectacular atmospheric effects through its deft, but technically simple use of mist, mirrors and electric light. And from his earliest works in the show, Eliasson – born 1967 – seems out to extract the maximum impact from the most minimal elements, while making his methods plain to the viewer. Window Projection (1990) is just a spotlight projecting an illuminated window frame onto the gallery wall, while I grew up in Solitude and Silence (1991), is a lit candle standing on a circular mirror and Rain Window (1999) – an early attempt at simulating weather conditions – water pouring down a gallery window. Together these works constitute a sort of minimalist autobiography with a melancholy and distinctively Nordic edge.

From these modest beginnings, however, Eliasson rapidly ups his scale and ambition, powering towards his current role as Renaissance Man of contemporary art. Eliasson, indeed, seems to want to take on every aspect of life simultaneously, from the way we perceive the world through our senses to the environment, consumerism and the possibilities of collective action.

Beauty 1993  Credit: © 1993 Olafur Eliasson

Beauty (1993), lives up to its somewhat portentous title: a shimmering wall of cascading droplets hit by a spotlight so that it takes on fugitive rainbow hues, like a sheet of ghostly silk wavering in space. But it’s trumped for sheer wow factor by Your Blind Passenger (2010), a 128ft-long corridor filled with yellow fog, in which you can never see more than a few feet in front of you. As the enveloping yellow (formed from water-soluble “fog fluid”) becomes more intense, you’re aware of a purplish blue radiance ahead that grows ever larger, until you pass through it into the cold white mist surrounding the exit. It’s a work that takes you completely out of yourself in just the way you’d hope for in an exhibition like this: in fact the blue radiance is entirely illusory, a complementary after-image of the yellow fog, as though you’ve got physically lost inside the processes of colour perception.

By disorienting us, Eliasson wants to make us simultaneously more alert to our surroundings and to the people around us – in this instance our fellow gallery-goers. We’ll certainly have close contact with them as we stumble through his yellow fog and, I dare say, queue lengthily to get into it. Yet Eliasson’s approach to the dislocation of space isn’t quite as sophisticated as the exhibition would have us believe.

Your Spiral View (2002), is a kind of walk-through kaleidoscope, a mind-bendingly complex tubular polygon turned inside-out, that shatters your reflection in numberless polished steel facets as you move through it. It put me in mind of the Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters exhibition last year, which looked at art that plays games with space over the past half century, with many of the works using mirrors. While Eliasson’s work is, from a geometric point of view, vastly more complex, it lacks the spare enigmatic elegance of the best works in that earlier show.

We’re shown circular abstract watercolours produced using water from Icelandic glaciers, circular abstract paintings looking a bit like enormous CDs produced using every colour in paintings by the great 19th century German painter of the sublime, Caspar David Friedrich, and lots of photos of Icelandic icebergs vanishing because of climate change – much of which is only slightly interesting. The photographs could have been taken by anybody, which may have been the intention, but the fact that the subject is important, doesn’t make the work important. Indeed, an installation at the 2017 Venice Biennale in which asylum seekers were put to work producing solar-powered lamps to Eliasson’s designs – examples of which we’re shown here – was rightly derided as a patronising updating of the 19th century “human zoo”.

 Stardust particle 2014 Credit: © 2014 Olafur Eliasson

Big Bang Fountain (2014) is, from a purely visual point of view, an extraordinary work: a fountain glimpsed in stroboscopic split-second fragments, so that the surging water hangs before our eyes like a frozen sculpture before flashing back into the darkness – with each manifestation of the work instantaneous and unrepeatable. Yet it’s one of a number of works here that leave you wondering how you’d feel about them if you saw them in, say, the Science Museum. Not because they impart a particular scientific truth, but because though they show us a fascinating physical phenomenon, they leave us waiting for some element of grit or edge – something personal, controversial, mysterious or critical – that would transform them into really compelling art.

Overall there’s a strangely bland, corporate feel to this exhibition which doesn’t seem so surprising when you reflect that Eliasson has transformed himself and his studio into a corporate phenomenon in their own right. You’re left feeling that the sheer breadth of Eliasson’s concerns has led to a corresponding lack of depth in his art.

July 11 until Jan 5; 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk