Olafur Eliasson – The Turner Colour Experiments Vs Turner’s Awe

Olafur Eliasson

Tate Britain presents acclaimed Danish artist Olafur Eliasson – creator of the impressive Turbine Hall commission ‘The weather project’ 2003, where many a viewer basked in the almighty glory of a replica sun – with a new series of works in the Tate’s Clore Gallery. The artist has made a new oeuvre of work that responds to J.M.W. Turner’s famed painterly responses to light. ‘The Turner colour experiments’ have been created in an attempt to demonstrate Turner’s continued relevancy, and coincides with Tate Britain’s autumn exhibition, ‘Late Turner – Painting Set Free’.

Eliasson has used various methods in his own exploration of the ‘photon in art’, from working with chemists to create detailed colour spectrums via each nanometre of light, and many other unique processes to boot. This time the artist investigates Turner’s use of light and colour by abstracting the hues of the paintings into monolithic colour studies, of seven of the great artist’s paintings. These new works relate to an ongoing series of Colour experiments that Eliasson beginning in 2009.

The artist’s great haze of vapour encompassing the Turbine Hall; in which his huge sun shone down on many basking viewers – resting beneath the spectacle of his artificial sun, as if having finally reached their holiday destinations – is a testimony to the talent and effectiveness of Eliasson’s work. One would instantly consider the artist the perfect choice, and complement to an exhibition of Turner’s late paintings. But the viewer may possibly be expecting something of a similarly spectacular nature.

Turner’s final works reached an almost abstract nature regarding his own exploration of light; and one can see how Eliasson’s vaporous and glowing pieces would seem to make him the perfect contemporary choice to explore the master’s deft responses to atmosphere. But instead of Turner’s two dimensional responses – Eliasson’s is in his usual three dimensions.

The artist has replied to Turner with his usual style of immersive installation; and attempts to bring the great British painter into the 21st century through the atmospheric use of humidifiers, and mirrors; to envelop the viewer in a three-dimensional Turner-esque environ – that the artist would hopefully find all engaging.

The works are based on the concept of the colour wheel, in which the colours of the spectrum are placed in opposing complementary positions – orange facing blue, violet opposite yellow – in fact the artist commissioned a chemist to mix paint in the exact colour for “each nanometre of the visible light spectrum”. For example Eliasson’s ‘Colour Experiment No 57’, which based on Turner’s ‘Burning of the House of Lords and Commons’,1837, has strong reds and oranges flowing into violet and indigo on the left, and glowing yellows at the right, that transform into luminous lilac-blue hues.

This sounds extremely bombastic; yet one cannot help but feel a little disappointed by the subtlety of Eliasson’s works. Having created such expansive and defining large scale pieces in the past; the artist sets himself a problematic contrast; the effect of the works physicality is like being surrounded by seven gigantic shimmering CDs.

I would describe Turner’s works with many a ‘glowing’ adjective – but I would not describe them as subtle – There is always great drama to Turner’s light and atmosphere. One could say that it is unfair to state that the Eliasson has set himself up to fail; after all this is not exactly the correct way to judge the artist’s response to Turner’s drama.

The viewer can indeed understand the logic of Eliasson’s works here, and the art indeed engages on an intellectual level – but the installation somehow lacks the awe of the great British master, that in many ways Eliasson captured with his weather project – but after all; they are experiments.

Olafur Eliasson – The Turner colour experiments – Tate Britain – 26 August – 25 January 2015

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014

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