Olafur Eliasson, La tua ombra incerta (colore) [Your uncertain shadow (colour)], 2010
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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

Whether or not he belongs in a museum, it’s due time Olafur Eliasson made it to Bilbao, one would say. If only his stay could be as permanent as his fellow stars

A welcome to the Basque Country

Olafur Eliasson is a superstar and everybody knows it. His arrival in London for the first part of the two-city show In Real Life was fine—they’ve seen everyone come in and out of the Tate. But his arrival in Bilbao—grand, eagerly awaited by the city’s citizens and the tourism board—seems to only naturally fit with the names that have made it to this tucked city and decently augmented its footfall: Jeff Koons, whose 40-feet tall living plant sculpture Puppy greets confused newcomers into the city; Norman Foster, beloved designer of the city’s metro; Philippe Starck, who took a cinematographic approach in the major renovation of the Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center, and of course, Frank Gehry, who is behind the ship-like architecture of the city’s very own Guggenheim.

The feeling is mutual, and Eliasson appears to share the excitement of being in the Basque Country: «I’ve known Frank twenty years now, and it’s an incredible pleasure for me to be able to send him a selfie with my artworks inside his museum, like I did yesterday». 

IRL stands for In Real Life. Like LMAO, AF, and RN, it is an acronym that for the most part, is limited to the young and the online. Olafur Eliasson picked it to title his solo show—a survey of his thirty-year career—co-curated by Lucía Agirre and Mark Godfrey, on view at Guggenheim Bilbao until June 2020. Featuring about thirty works created between 1990 and 2020 that look to have visitors «reflect on the urgent issues of today», the show is the second iteration after the first at London’s Tate Modern. 

La folie was a great person

Entering the show, Model Room (2003) proves that Eliasson is a hoarder (though who could blame him, given that his published 2019 sales turnover was €1,023,758). A glass case includes about 450 models, mainly of prototypes of both ideas that eventually manifested and ideas that weren’t as lucky. Originally a personal library, it is now part of the permanent collection at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Your Uncertain Shadow (Colour)(2010) is the official poster star. Best enjoyed when alone in Gallery 205, the work reflects a silhouette of the passing visitor across the entire length of the wall with five colors that blend to produce white light.

Moving towards Gallery 206, Moss Wall (1994) includes live Scandinavian reindeer lichen (moss-like fungus that grows in northern temperate climates) across a wide wall. Eliasson likes transporting live material from up North, perhaps to offer the metropolitan viewer a nature experience that they would not otherwise seek, in a safe, controlled environment. «The museum is not a police station», he had said earlier, and in his presence during the opening, viewers roam to touch and smell without inhibition. «It is not so often the museum is celebrating foolishness. Historically ‘la folie’ was a great person. A little bit of hedonism—for god’s sake, we need that. I like this idea of la folie, the little space where we can be fools». 

The work Eliasson is most excited about, it would appear, is in Gallery 208. Perhaps because it is his newest. Its title indicates The Glacier Melt Series (1999/2019) (2019) has been twenty years in the making and features thirty images of the same glaciers in Iceland photographed from a little plane from the same position both in 1999 (at the start of his career more or less) and in 2019. It’s a typical case of before and after and is a prime example of an approach that critics have previously described as being too ‘obvious’ about Eliasson’s practice. Framed, these thirty images are underwhelming after a long series of participatory experiences. Ventilator (1997), an electric fan suspended high above the series, swings on the energy of the air it releases.

Reality in a higher density

Eliasson’s In Real Life is without a doubt visitor-centered; visitors who are not necessarily interested or are perhaps even intimidated by the white cube experience could enjoy the show without a single glance at the brochure guide. Light and color participatory experiences are aplenty as well as some sound.

The show amplifies the idea that museum expertise should not be necessary and that the space should be social space for all to peruse, or what Eliasson refers to as a ‘safe space’. «Do we go into the museum to see reality in a higher density? We don’t go to escape from reality. We go to fundamentally understand ourselves, and not the museum».

In Real Life seems to be, in many ways, similar to Take Your Time, a touring exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art back in 2008 that had then traveled to the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Dallas Museum of Art, the MCA Chicago and the MCA Australia. The majority of the works remain the same, minimally expanded, and in a way, it would seem that the 2008 show had simply continued traveling into another decade. 

Dissonance in the museum-gallery-auction structure

In all its tricks and wonders in forcing introspection into human perception, In Real Life—an experience that is best-compared to a visit to a Museum of Illusions franchise—may not necessarily generate a conversation on climate change in the same way that Eliasson’s on-site interventions have, the most recent the scandalous Ice Watch (2014) where he had thirty blocks of ice shipped from Greenland to London to melt freely amongst pedestrians, or the less recent series The Green River Intervention, where he dyed river currents with the neon-green, water-soluble Uranine across Tokyo, Los Angeles, Bremen, and Stockholm.

But that does not mean there is no space for Eliasson in the museum structure, even if after all those years and all those solo shows, he still seems a little awkward in going about it and appears to best enjoy being on the streets despite his repeated claims about the museum’s superior role in civil society. What artist would, in their right mind, decline their very own museum show?

«Artists, they love to talk about human rights because it sounds like art and human rights are equally important. Of course human rights undoubtedly [are more important]», says Eliasson. There is a clear dissonance between his role in the museum-gallery-auction structure—which is almost forced-fabricated into existence for the sake of an art world presence—and then his as an activist. But if the former stimulates, publicizes and funds the latter then Eliasson has a decent strategy behind him. Whether or not he belongs in a museum, it’s due time Olafur Eliasson made it to Bilbao, one would say. If only his stay could be as permanent as his fellow stars.


Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on view at Guggenheim Bilbao until April 2021

Abandoibarra Etorb., 2

Bilbao, Spain

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