Olafur Eliasson’s dazzling sun in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall was arguably his most popular installation to date. In this extract from a new book on the artist, Marcella Beccaria, Chief Curator at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Italy, takes a look back to 2003 and explains why this work reaffirmed the social role of the museum
Commissioned for The Unilever Series in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, The weather project 2003 is probably the most popular installation made by Eliasson for a museum to date. Visitors who stepped in from the rigours of the London winter found themselves facing a dazzling sun, shining out into a setting almost devoid of colour, its outlines blurred by mist. When walking towards it down the sloping floor of the 150-metre-long Turbine Hall, their expectations were gradually raised through a whole range of experiences. Once they had reached the end of the space, their illusions were shattered when they were allowed to discover the technical components that created the installation: a wide semicircular screen back-lit by a battery of about 200 yellow mono-frequency lamps mounted 7.7 metres from the end wall of the Hall. Almost as though revealing a previously hidden theatrical face of the sun, the entire installation set-up came into view, and the impression that it formed a complete circle in an endless environment turned out to be no more than a reflection created by mirror foil that ran the entire length of the ceiling and was supported by aluminium frames. On closer inspection, the fog was also revealed to be artificial in origin by the mechanical nozzles that blew it out.
The weather project tells of the climate and of its social effects, in the context of a museum, Tate Modern, which is located at the heart of a large post-industrial city. In Eliasson’s view, the weather acts as ‘nature’ in the urban context, for, even though it is possible to control the climate inside buildings, it remains out of human control and can never be forecast with certainty. In his text ‘Museums Are Radical’, which was published in the catalogue of the project, Eliasson examines some of the reasons for his lasting interest in the subject:
The weather has been so fundamental to shaping our society that one can argue that every aspect of life – economical, political, technical, cultural, emotional – is linked to or derived from it. Over the centuries, defending ourselves from the weather has proved even more important than protecting ourselves from each other in the form of war and violence. If you cannot withstand the weather, you cannot survive.
But, one might wonder, what has the weather got to do with the museum? Eliasson himself deals with the issue in the following terms:
The reason is obviously not because of the relationship between the institution and the weather, but for me it’s the relationship between the institution and society. Fundamentally the work is about people, passing information back and forth, at every stage spreading into the next chain, so that a sort of human nuclear reaction is taking place.
To start this process, the artist took inspiration from day-to-day museum operations, ranging from brainstorming sessions to staff meetings, through to the publication of information for the press and the preparation of advertising campaigns.
Starting from the idea that the institution is first and foremost an organism made up of people, Eliasson encouraged the active involvement of the employees of Tate Modern right from the beginning. With the close co-operation of Susan May, the project curator, in the spring of 2003 he distributed a questionnaire to various departments in the museum. With the answers to twenty questions including: ‘On an average day, how often would you discuss the weather?’, ‘Do you think the weather or climate in any way impacts on your salary?’, ‘In which season do you kiss someone other than your partner the most?’, the staff and the artist interacted in a peculiar conversation, ranging from trivial issues to the specifics of the respondents’ jobs, through to more personal and private matters. During that period, Eliasson also engaged the representatives of various departments, including those of Education and Interpretation, Operations and Front House, Communications, as well as Tate director Nicholas Serota and the museum architect Jacques Herzog, in discussions that examined issues such as representation, experience, interpretation and display. Before the installation was first shown to the public in October 2003, a press release published a few weeks earlier combined fact and fiction, by reporting the news of research being carried out in the Turbine Hall, which was described as a place apparently capable of forming meteorological conditions of its own. Lastly, the artist also worked on the advertising campaign, which featured some of the same questions included in the staff questionnaire, rather than more traditional, representational pictures of the work.
Extending The weather project well beyond the already vast Turbine Hall, the entire behind-the-scenes process set up by Eliasson critically addressed broad issues pertaining to the museum’s structure and functions, as well as its power to control information or display art in mediated forms of experience. At the same time, stressing some of the particular features of the Turbine Hall, such as its giant proportions, or the open function of its intentionally undefined spaces, The weather project brought out the full potential of Tate Modern and, by extension, of museums in general, as places of encounter and aggregation. Countless documentary images of the work show spontaneous meetings, celebrations, people embracing or revelling in the artificial light, or lying on the floor to gaze at their own reflections in the ceiling, and even episodes of civil protest. Ultimately reaffirming the social role of the museum, The weather project returned the institution to the democratic potential that the history of Western culture first experienced in the agora, the public square in Ancient Greek cities that was at the heart of every aspect of daily life.
This edited essay is an extract from the publication ‘Olafur Eliasson’ in the Modern Artists book series by Marcella Beccaria (Tate Publishing) available now