Can art save us?

Exploring the potential of immersive art in Olafur Eliasson’s latest exhibition at Tate Modern


By Annick Sheffield


In his book Why Only Art Can Save Us (2017), Santiago Zabala argues that contemporary art has become a means to re-engage a disillusioned public with the urgencies of the crises of our time and, in doing so, ultimately save us:


“In sum, if we have become so accustomed to these commonplaces that we take them for granted, then art, as Heidegger said, is "something" that "thrust[s] us into" emergencies, that is, saves us from discrimination, forgetfulness, and annihilation. Rather than points of arrival for consumers' identification, contemplation, and realization of beauty, works of art are points of departure to change the world, a world that needs new interpretations instead of better descriptions. While some might consider emergency aesthetics excessively political, it is difficult to ignore contemporary art's interest in our salvation...”


Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, which opened July 11th at Tate Modern, highlights one of the most pressing emergencies of our time: the human impact on the environment. However, rather than thrusting the viewer in a confrontation with this emergency in a violent manner, the exhibition instead encourages a sort of curious exploration by using immersive techniques that affirm a sense of communal responsibility and open the viewer to a renewed engagement with their surroundings.

Photo by Annick Sheffield


The exhibition, which draws together over 40 of Eliasson’s works, centres around installations and artworks using a variety of natural materials — lichen, water, fire, light, fog and wood. A lack of explanatory material within the exhibition, including the relative scarcity of text, allows the participant to engage with the works in their own manner. As one walks beneath an iridescent mist, buries their fingers in a wall of Scandinavian lichen, loses themselves in a corridor filled with thick fog and then finds themselves again while walking through a spiral passage of mirrored kaleidoscopes, one gets the sense that they are experiencing themselves and their surroundings anew.

Eliasson’s work resists the traditional mode of encounter of the art museum — that of the distanced and passive viewer observing a piece of art hung on a wall. Instead, the installations provoke active exploration. They renew a sense of curiosity within the gallery-goer encouraging them to engage in a new way with the artwork. What happens if I walk through this object? How does it feel if I touch this? How will the light catch my hand if I put it in front of this? In this way, the viewer becomes no longer a viewer but rather a participant, as much a part of the artwork as the surrounding environment.


Mark Wigley, a curator and architect with an interest in the use of immersion in museums, finds that immersive art “embraces all the senses, creating a space where any gaps or sense of separateness are lost.” This is a key aspect of immersive exhibitions: a blurring of the boundary between subject and object, between inside and outside, between art and life.


Photo by Annick Sheffield


The In Real Life exhibition, and Eliasson’s work in general, develops out of an emerging field of immersive, installation-based experiential art. The work of artists such as James Turrell, Robert Irwin and Anthony McCall have played a significant role in the development of this type of exhibition model. They create immersive works out of natural materials that focus on developing experiences and manipulating one’s sense of the world.


This tradition is deeply influenced by participatory art practices arising in the mid to late 20th century, notions of performance, and theories of art as a tool to activate both the individual and the collective in the social and political sphere. It draws upon Nicholas Bourriaud’s influential concept of relational aesthetics in 1998 which describes the process by which contemporary art creates lived, social experience that are about “learning to inhabit the world in a better way.”


Photo by Annick Sheffield

In a post-truth, market-driven, information era, this form of art is desperately needed to capture the attention and re-invigorate the imagination of the public. Overwhelmed and desensitised by the constant stream of crises brought to our attention by the media, we have developed a dissonance between action and affect. The neoliberal economy driven by the economic imperatives of global institutions distorts the reality of social and political emergencies and dulls us to a sense of agency against existential threats.


The art of immersive exhibitions responds to this by creating experiences which re-frame perception in sometimes uncomfortable or unfamiliar ways in order to challenge complacency and call into question a person’s role within their community and, even, the world. As Zabala, whose book is mentioned at the beginning of this article, affirms, this type of art does not rescue us from emergencies but, paradoxically, calls us into a deeper engagement with them by evoking a sense of responsibility through an awareness of the relationship between environment and self and self and others.


I experienced this through Eliasson’s work not just by observing the way I responded to certain installations but also by watching other people interact with them. One particular moment during my visit demonstrates this. As I stood watching my shadow in front of the coloured spotlights of Your Uncertain Shadow (2010), two young boys ran into the room and began dancing in front of the lights, watching with excitement as their constantly moving reflections whirled across the wall. Their dancing silhouettes overlapped with the stillness of mine breaking up the solitary outline and creating new, fleeting shapes and colours, that is, until their mother arrived to corral them. I think Eliasson would be very pleased with the way those boys responded to his work—an excited and curious exploration of the possibilities of the environment and our own actions.


Photo by Annick Sheffield


Perhaps art cannot solve all the world’s problems. Realistically, it definitely can’t. However, there is still a vital role for art in our contemporary environment. Writer, artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz agrees: "I do not believe that art feeds people, or that art ends AIDS, but I do believe that the job of art is to return the viewer to herself or himself estranged—feeling strange and feeling the world as a strange and unfamiliar place." Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition certainly accomplishes this and, as the final room of the exhibition demonstrates, goes a long way toward saving us and the world while it’s at it.


Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Modern from 11 July 2019 to 5 January 2020