Filling Our Eyes with Sunshine

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, July 11, 2019–January 6, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mark Godfrey
Tate, 239 pp., $24.99 (paper)
Photograph of Olafur Eliasson's The weather project
Tate Photography, Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith
Olafur Eliasson: The weather project, 2003

No one who saw it has ever forgotten it: a fat yellow sun hanging inside the colossal Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery, glowing through clouds of swirling mist. Olafur Eliasson’s The weather project, which opened in October 2003, was a magical microclimate created at a moment when weather was on everyone’s mind: a hellishly overheated summer—an early harbinger of the ominous climatic changes to come—had begun at last to release its grip on Europe. If the air outdoors brought a welcome touch of autumn chill, the huge luminous circle of Eliasson’s indoor universe shimmered miragelike above a ruddy haze, making high noon on the south bank of the Thames feel almost like sunset on the veldt. The great sun’s monotone yellow stripped away the other colors, turning everyone and everything into tiny sepia silhouettes. People responded to their transformation in the most extraordinary ways: they lay down flat, flapping their arms and legs as if they could make snow angels on the Tate’s concrete floor, talking to strangers in the mist. No one was tethered yet to a little handheld screen; we were all in The weather project together, fellow participants in a miracle.

Anyone who looked carefully at the mechanics of Eliasson’s installation could see that it was all an illusion. The circular sun was really a semicircular screen, lit from behind by two hundred monofrequency lamps (the kind used for streetlights), reflected in a mirrored ceiling that completed its round outline and seemingly stretched the already grand dimensions of the Turbine Hall to dizzying heights. An upside-down airborne public mimicked the movements of the public below, with an effect as disconcerting as a funhouse, but carried out with simple elegance and on a magnificent scale. Knowing how The weather project worked did nothing to break its enchantment; the whole remained immeasurably, and unpredictably, greater than the sum of its parts. The Turbine Hall has never been as happy as it was in those five months from October 2003 to March 2004.

Eliasson was thirty-six, a Dane of Icelandic ancestry who had spent most of his summers exploring Iceland with his father, Elías Hjörleifsson, an artist who also worked as the cook on a fishing trawler. Their adventures traversing a harsh volcanic terrain and unpredictable seas left a lasting impact on the son. In Olafur Eliasson: Experience, the large retrospective catalog that chronicles Eliasson’s work to date (its cover is the same brilliant yellow as the catalog of The weather project), he recalls that his father and another artist, Örn “Gunnar” Gunnarsson, would

go out sketching and painting, and they’d talk about the moss and the stones and get lost in the various reds and browns and greens. Their artistic toolbox was often mythological and narrative-driven.…

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