In 2003, Olafur Eliasson brought the sun to the Tate Modern. The weather project completely transformed Turbine Hall – even though, as his studio says, it “was just a mirror and a half circle of light!” – and made Eliasson very famous. In the years since, the Icelandic-Danish artist has gone on to conjure many more inspiring works, ephemeral and permanent, and from installations to lighting products and architecture. He is also creating some of the most remarkable commentary on climate change: during the Paris climate talks in 2015, he installed 12 blocks of ice – “cast off from the Greenland ice sheet [and] harvested from a fjord outside Nuuk” – in a clock formation at Place du Panthéon. Ice Watch, as his melting sculpture is called, was recently installed for the third time in two London locations – one of them being the Tate Modern.
It’s at this same museum again that Eliasson’s work takes centre stage. Olafur Eliasson: In real life, opened this month and runs until January 5, 2020. It features 40 works, many of which – like the 11-metre-tall Waterfall 2019, installed outside, as well as Moss wall 1994 and Beauty 1993 – pay homage to nature. There’s even a corridor of dense fog called Din blinde passenger (Your blind passenger). Alongside these experiential installations that immerse visitors in weather phenomena within the walls of a cultural space, there are also works that look at humans’ effect on the environment: For example, Eliasson’s photography of Iceland’s glaciers from 1999, which will be complemented in autumn with new images of that landscape today.
The exhibition also includes Model room 2003, featuring 450 of his models and prototypes, and The Expanded Studio – a collaborative space that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how his practice engages with social and environmental issues.
The show is the latest in a series of exhibitions grappling with the topic of climate change – and how artists, designers and their collaborators in other disciplines can help raise awareness, present new perspectives and even provide novel solutions to an increasingly overwhelming reality. As heat spells rage in Europe, the Tate directors today issued a press release in which they “declare a climate emergency” and speak to the practical steps the museum will take in curbing its carbon emissions. It seems the art and design worlds are more engaged than ever in confronting climate change as the defining issue of our generation.
The entire notion of “design thinking” plays into the accepted wisdom that designers are in the business of solving big problems – even ones perpetuated by the world of design and architecture. Christine Murray, the founder of The Festival of Place, skewers this idea by stating, somewhat sacrilegiously, that designers cannot save the world. (In fact, it seems that some of the most imaginative among them have already moved on to other worlds.)
The real power of these exhibitions, then, is in displaying the exciting ideas that come about when creative people in various fields combine their energies. Some of their explorations are worthwhile simply for helping us shape how we think about climate change in the first place, and how we can wrap our minds around the realities depicted in Ed Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s Anthropocene project (which is on its latest tour stop, at Bologna’s MAST). Artists engaged in this conversation are asking questions like, What is awareness? What is empathy? How can we break through our numbness?
Or should we simply become resigned to our impending extinction, while projecting meaning through beauty onto our end journey, as Paola Antonelli, the curator of Broken Nature at the Triennale Milano, has suggested? “We will become extinct; extinction is normal, it’s natural,” she has said. “We don’t have the power to stop our extinction but we have the power to make it count.” Nature, the triennial exhibition currently on at the Cooper Hewitt, explores similar territory – presenting ideas both useful and fanciful – but seems to have a different message altogether: “to demonstrate how designers are collaborating with scientists, engineers, environmentalists, academics and other stakeholders to find inventive and promising solutions to the environmental and social challenges confronting humanity today.”
For the solution-oriented, there is much we can still do. Like Eliasson, Daan Roosegaarde (who has his own show, at the Groninger Museum) is an artist-designer – someone working in the liminal space between making art and providing potential solutions. Among his many endeavours, he’s collaborating with NASA to capture plastic detritus orbiting the Earth and transforming it into new pieces – a kind of cosmic upcycling – and he’s created devices like the Smog Vacuum to clean the air of noxious particulates. Are these scalable solutions akin to carbon sequestration, direct air capture and solar radiation management – the types of Big Science thought experiments that might help us re-engineer the climate? Probably not.
But this type of exploration is critical and necessary to raising consciousness. When he debuted his Quasi OE light for Louis Poulsen in Milan, Eliasson described how his focus on the environment has changed his own behaviour. “I just think it’s become a part of how I work and organize my own life and studio,” he told me. “What’s new for me: I’ve become used to always being conscious of that. And once you’re conscious, you gradually start to seek out the more progressive solutions. From there, I started to get more involved in more advocacy and simply raise my voice when I can. But I am also conscious that I’m not by all means the most conscious person – I fly around the world in order to do my work – but we need to see things in balance. If I stopped flying I’d have to find another job, but I haven’t found anything I’d want to do. I think we are all changing like this. There’s not a single person left on the planet who does not, in way or another, know about climate change.”
The retrospective features installations that elevate how people interact with their surroundings – and examine how they’ve changed their environment.