Our perception of ourselves and our relationship to the world as it comes to us is something which allows an audience to have authorship and complete a work of art

Olafur Eliasson’s key message, beyond the context and form of his artwork, is that the audience is key in completing his works he strives to allow his audience to “see themselves sense” (Lillemose, 2011)

Following my visit to Eliasson’s In Real Life retrospective at Tate Modern I have gathered comments from other visitors to elicit what it was that affected them as they toured this collection of work and compare their recollections with my own.

This will help me to gauge how these particular artworks create the opportunity for Eliasson’s Audience to see themselves sense which may be helpful in planning my next piece of work.

My request after the exhibition was posed as

I wondered if you would mind joining in my research having been round the Olafur exhibition as I’m interested in your different perspectives on the exhibits. The intention of the works, according to Eliasson, was that you would become aware of your senses, people around you and the world beyond. Could you tell me about your particular encounters?

These are their comments from Whatsap

BB- 1 I did enjoy the smoke tunnel – the mass of people disappeared and because it was just pretty much us three we could see. It was time perhaps that the fog gave me (oddly – because that’s quite a strange thought!) to explore the edges of my world without actually touching the edges. As we said when we were chatting, when we could feel/see the edges we felt disappointed. I liked the graduation of colour as we went through.

2 I think the other thing I liked was the picture made with ink and ice melting together and the bronzes of the ice that had melted. Sort of intangible. This too has to do with time

3 I loved the wall at the end with all the notes and would quite like to go back and look at that again.

4 (Water Fountain) I was aware of others in that place because when the light flashed on the water it also flashed on the faces of people leaning in – just their faces like a snapshot.

MP-1- I liked the green glass made from green glacier dust. Something made by ice made by inferno heat into glass. Now that makes a spectator feel insignificant against the elements

2 – Also in the smoke when people appear just as a feint silhouette doesn’t it remind you of how people can fail to register with you when you are all together and later you remember things you wished you’d engaged with them more about. To fill out the picture as it were because you’d connected with them.

LB -Smoke tunnel was genuinely brilliant. We did it twice. Like being caught it a snow storm. Gives the sense of the awesome power of nature – bit scary, bit wowed. Very fun. Changing colours changed my mood like a SAD light. Loved the orange and pink.

As I know these people it is interesting, but not surprising I suppose, that their responses seem to reflect what I know about them. BB – the impression of things and MP the nature of things.  And LB seeing the magic.

As I went round I tried to get a sense of Merleau Ponty’s notion of chiasm and our notion of ourselves as being in the world – where chiasm defines that part which is us and the infinitesimal distance between us and our perception of the world which touches us.

“We started off from a world in itself which acted upon our eyes so as to cause us to see it, and now we have consciousness of, or thought about the world, but the nature of the world remains unchanged; it is still defined by the absolute mutual exteriority of its parts, and is merely duplicated throughout its extent by a thought which sustains it” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2005 p.406)

I think I most strongly realised this state of being in the darkened room with the strobe lit fountain. I became acutely aware of myself and my proximity to the piece of work. The utter darkness of the room helped to eliminate other distractions and allowed me to focus on the installation. I became aware of the hardness of the container and the uniformity of the pebble like filling of the container and that they were dry despite the proximity to the small geezer like fountain which erupted as the light flashed. This had the effect of breaking the silence in the room (although there was an almost constant camera clicking present it was secondary to the experience) the ghost impression of the water suddenly, and strangely stilled, stayed on my eyes even as the light went out. The noise of the water still echoing momentarily even though the picture of the still water was the lasting impression. BB had picked up on her proximity to the other people in the room, caught their faces as the snap shot and she had noticed that they were (particularly) looking at the water.

“Between my consciousness and my body as I experience it, between this phenomenal body of mine and that of another as I see it from the outside, there exists an internal relation which causes the other to appear as the completion of the system. The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2005 p410)

The Smoke room was the ideal place to examine this phenomena and for myself, BB and LB there seemed to be a sense of both self and our relationship to others in the experience.  I noticed that I created a relationship with the space around me. I became absolutely aware of myself travelling forwards and that there was an element of timelessness (picked up on by BB) to the experience. After the realisation of the shape of myself I noticed the taste and smell of the smoke (which had the effect of changing the nature of the smoke) I felt the smoke was an entity itself it had become a body, in a sense, because it had a taste and a smell. The lighting emphasised the solidity of the ‘smoke’ against my body travelling through it. The lights also began to affect how I felt (as LB had noted) in the yellow and orange I was aware of myself and a sense of wonderment, in the magenta pink, the white and blue. I became more aware of others around me and felt cool in the white and blue, less joyful of the experience. BB mentioned that she felt as If she was aware of herself in a world without boundaries and the realisation of the physical element of the rooms walls highlighted the loss of this sense of self. For MP there was a sense of reflection, perhaps a sense of loss generated by the vagueness of the other figures. The other figures certainly did trigger a sense of distance, they became unreachable in a strange way because the space was actually quite small and there were around 20 people all walking through at the same time, but the smoke notionally erased them from the experience. For me though this was a retrospective consideration because I was fundamentally aware more of myself in the experience than I was (bar BB and MP) other people.

I believe that these four experiences demonstrate the authorship which Eliasson seeks to create between the audience and his works. As he says without the audience there is no art (Editors, 2019)


Editors, A. (2019) “Without the Viewer There is Nothing”: Olafur Eliasson on Positioning the Audience and the Notion of Reality. Available at: http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/without-the-viewer-there-is-nothing-olafur-eliasson-on-positioning-the-audience-and-the-notion-of (Accessed: 15th August 2019 2019).

Lillemose, J. (2011) Towards the revolution of the working audience – Kunstkritikk: Kunstkritikk. Available at: https://kunstkritikk.com/towards-the-revolution-of-the-working-audience/ (Accessed: 18 august 2019).

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2005) Phenomenology of Perception (Hardback) – Routledge. Translated by: Smith, C. 4 edn. London: New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, p. xiv, xix, 64, 70, 87,101,106,116, 117, 239, 369,.