Why This Artist is Bringing the Outdoors Indoors, and Unreality into Real Life

Olafur Eliasson once put a sun in the Tate Modern. Now he returns with a retrospective that turns light, fog and water into an environmental rallying cry.

By Simon Ingram
Published 11 Jul 2019, 16:32 BST, Updated 28 Apr 2021, 20:28 BST
"We have eyes in our fingers too." Olaf Eliasson's Moss Wall (1994) invites visitors to touch. ...
"We have eyes in our fingers too." Olaf Eliasson's Moss Wall (1994) invites visitors to touch.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

The wall is about the length of a tennis court and as high as a bungalow, and it’s alive. It’s called Moss Wall, because it is covered in reindeer moss (technically a lichen) and is very much a wall. It's a dirty yellow colour and from a distance has the visual texture of a cauliflower gone bad. But then you get close, smell that earthy smell of moor and mountain, and you see that it’s comprised of millions of tiny branches, delicate and intricate, like a sprawling forest seen from far above. You want to touch it. And then you see a sign saying that yes, you can. 

Reindeer lichen is tough, grows very slowly and lives in the same scoured arctic climates as its antlered namesake. This wall is the product of another northern soul, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson – whose new retrospective exhibition, In Real Life, opens at London’s Tate Modern today. 

Left: Olaf Eliasson beneath In Real Life (2019), one of several new pieces collected for this exhibition. Right: inside Your Blind Passenger (2010), a 39-metre fog tunnel which progressively glows from an unseen source.

The works are immersive, tactile experiences drenched in the worlds of altered light and tempestuous weather keenly identifiable with high, chilly latitudes. Many are titled accordingly: No Nights in Summer, No Days in Winter; The Glacier Series; Cold Wind Sphere; Beauty; Little Sun. Many invite the observer's direct experience: Your Blind Passenger, Your Planetary Window, Your Spiral View. All is housed within the hard, brutalist lines of the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building.

Eliasson is no stranger to spectacle, or the Tate. He is best known for The Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall, which may be remembered better simply as ‘the sun’ – a vivid, glowing optical illusion of a mini star, that turned the space into a cavernous, amber apocalypse when it wowed crowds in 2003.  

Moss Wall (1994) comprises tens of square metres of a hardy northern lichen. When watered, it changes colour, expands and smells.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

With such a precedent set, it’s the exhibition’s more dramatic elements that are likely to draw people to In Real Life. There is plenty here to bend the senses – from delightful rainbow shadowplays, to walkways of reflective metal fashioned into twisted mirrors, and a remarkable 39-metre long fog tunnel that increasingly and ominously glows as you walk it, like smoke from an unseen fire. Art meeting science, to arresting effect. And running through this retrospective like a skeleton is a strong and very current environmental resonance. It’s no coincidence the exhibition is launching on the heels of London’s Climate Action Week.

Beauty (1993) is a wall of lit mist, which creates rainbow lightplay within its cascade.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

Here, amongst the colours and the novelty, is a grid of glacier photographs from 1999, the interpretation board indicating the artist intends to revisit and measure the change of the two decades since. Here too is a 20-metre wall spattered with cuttings and clippings about the climate emergency, with strategic diagrams making the whole resemble the pinboard of an environmental activist’s HQ. Eliasson made headlines in December 2018 when he plucked melted ice from the sea around Greenland, installed it across London, and let it melt. It's a theme Eliasson isn't afraid to acknowledge.

“We used to stand on the shoulders of our past in order to navigate our present,” he told National Geographic UK. “Now, especially with environment and nature, we need to think of a future that is better than the past. We need to have hope in front of us. So we’re now using the future to navigate our present.”

Sensory origins

Born in Copenhagen, Olafur Eliasson spent his childhood between Denmark and Iceland, where he fostered an appreciation for the artistic potential of the natural elements. “As a teenager I spent a lot of time in the Highlands of Iceland, and I was very interested in what that did to me. I really came to [art] from more psychological and experimental perspective, I was interested in perception, in colour perception, nervous systems, tangibility, how does it feel to touch.” 

A popular room in the show,Your Uncertain Shadow (2010) uses colour projectors to create multiple rainbow-like shadows of visitors.
Photograph by Georgia Fitz-Gibbon, National Geographic

“I was interested in perception, colour perception, nervous systems, tangibility, how does it feel to touch.”

Olafur Eliasson

The day before we meet, Eliasson spoke at an event for London Climate Action Week, where he joined Professor Mary Robinson, designer and activist Clare Farrell and Indian climate campaigner Malini Mehra to discuss sustainability, and the potential for art to inspire change. Eliasson mentions the idea of the ‘Anthropocene’ – the oft-coined name for the current age, when human influence has become the dominant force in the planet’s cycle of change.

“The air that we breathe cannot be taken for granted as natural anymore. It is human, it is influenced by human activity. There's nowhere, not a rock in Iceland which has not been touched in some way or another by airplane pollution, or the change in temperature,” he says. “The arctic moss that I photographed and documented so often, the rivers. Those glaciers for example. How different they are after 20 years. They really are unbelievably different. A whole glacier is just gone.”

Glacial Currents (Black, Green) 2018; a series of watercolours conjur the textures and shades of meltwater.
Your Spiral View (2002) and, left top, In Real Life (2019).

Our engagement with – and influence on – the world highlights another theme in Eliasson’s work: juxtaposition. Indoor and outdoor, ethereal and industrial, human and natural. It’s here in an apparent window to the outside, projected onto a blank surface. A black electric fan hung from the ceiling, spinning endlessly, like a mechanised vulture. The three-dimensional and disorderly, displayed and flattened to a plain, as with the moss wall. And the fact that every elemental conjuring in the exhibition relies on often unconcealed human apparatus to augment the hi-tech effect. You see this immediately in one of the most obvious exhibits: a waterfall on an angular scaffold, towering over the Tate’s terrace bar. Wild elements, married to and dropped into an urban setting.

A visitor observes The Glacier Series (1999), a set of stills Eliasson hopes to rephotograph this year to record the change over two decades.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

The Weather Project here about 16 years ago was essentially about constructed nature, constructed atmosphere, constructed environments. It's interesting that you think it's high tech, it's actually not really,” Eliasson says. “Take a closer look and the most complicated thing is maybe a piece of metal bending in a certain way or something. Just like the waterfall, it’s really water falling, but it’s scaffolding. It’s a fake sun. The rainbow, the mist spray… it's about 60 Euros worth of equipment, and a lamp. You could do this at home in the garage.” 

The Climate Factor

“It’s interesting how the reading of Eliasson's earlier work has changed,” says Emma Lewis, Assistant Curator for International Art at the Tate Modern. “When he made works like Beauty, or Moss Wall, he wasn’t necessarily thinking about the climate crisis then, but perhaps that’s a reading people will take away today.”  

Lewis notes the gallery had a carbon footprint report commissioned for the exhibit – an idea that, whilst reflective of the exhibit’s climate warning undertones, she asserts is ‘a question we have to start thinking about as an institution in everything we’re doing’. 

So what of the solutions? “This isn’t a show that proposes answers these questions,” she says. “But it’s hopefully provoking the conversation: what can culture do in helping address the climate emergency? Ice Watch is a work where you can see how Eliasson wants to help make the climate crisis real to people. There’s a definite message behind that work. Sometimes it can feel abstract seeing it represented in images, but the very physical experience of a melting chunk of glacial ice in front of you: maybe that really helps you to understand what’s happening.”

Olafur Eliasson in front of the waterfall installation, Tate Modern.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

As otherworldly as elements of the exhibition seem, it is undeniably one where you can find tactility, engagement – an unreality that, oddly, the artist hopes will enhance our connection with the real world. That touches us, when we touch it. 

“We have eyes in our fingers, too. I want people to touch.” Says Olafur Eliasson. “To touch is about simply acknowledging the physical. We see things, yes – but to feel and act and have a relationship with the world does require an element of embodiment.”

He adds: “First of all, if they touch they have to put their phone in their pocket. Which, to begin with, is not so bad.”


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved