The Tanks at Tate: Olafur Eliasson and Susan Philipsz

Darkness and light, experimentation and tradition, independence and the institution; Tate Modern has always been a space of contradictions. Its imposing, seemingly impenetrable brick façade welcomes all visitors – to irreverently pay their respects at the temple of modern art. For me personally, it holds special significance. It was the first place I witnessed the breath-taking potential of immersive art, with a 2003 trip to Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project. This installation brought the natural world into the manmade gallery space. Its giant sun and mist, which on closer inspection were exposed as 200 mono-frequency lamps, impudently foregrounded the artwork’s own sublime illusions. It was ridiculous and inspiring.

16 years later, on a free Saturday morning, I again ventured into the Tate’s Turbine Hall. This time, I explored the subterranean rooms that make up the Tanks – raw and industrial concrete spaces previously used for storing oil. As the gallery itself states: “No longer generating electricity, the Tanks generate ideas, creative energy and new possibilities for artists and audiences.”

 

In these pressing yet exciting spaces, reminiscent of a Berlin basement nightclub, I stumbled across Olafur Eliasson’s most recent installation. Your Double Lighthouse Projection consists of two large circular spaces. One imperceptibly shifts through the colour spectrum and the other functions as a “refreshing” bath of white light. The piece plays with the nature of perception itself, altering visitors’ sense of space and scale as they are enveloped in the soft glowing light. The focus on the possessive pronoun “your” further underscores this sense of shifting subjectivity. Each visitor to these spaces is encouraged to view it as their own experience. In the darkness of the Tanks though, the lines of “active participation” are blurred. Visitors are inevitably and inextricably drawn towards these columns of light, and the “choice” of participation recedes into the gloom.

 

The exploration of “active participation” is particularly fitting for Tate’s new extension. It is the world’s first museum space permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance and installations. It is also just as relevant to another creation residing in these depths; Susan Philipsz’ I see a Darkness. Unusually for an artwork dealing with the concept of light, the space is almost entirely pitch-black. The participant enters a cavernous hall, with only faint shadows of murky pillars visible. Instead of light, sound fills the room.

 

Three pieces of music performed by Philipsz (the acapella I See a Darkness, Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess and the Neapolitan barcarolle Santa Lucia) reverberate in the dusk. The installation presents two Lucias: the Italian Saint Lucia, a symbol of sight and light (Lucia deriving from the Latin lux for light); and Lucia Joyce (James Joyce’s daughter), who beautifully danced to Ravel’s Pavane yet spent most of her life incarcerated in mental institutions. In I See a Darkness, the two Lucias (as well as the artist herself) serve as an emblematic ‘light’, guiding the public through the chamber.

Just as Eliasson’s lighthouses investigate the interplay of light and space, Philipsz’ work stems from “an interest in how sound can define architectural space and how its emotive and psychological properties can alter our experiences.” With the overriding themes of light, sound, emotion, spatiality and subjectivity, Eliasson’s and Philipsz’ installations make perfect companions. In this gallery of contradictions, they form very real rays of light for any visitors brave enough to make it through the darkness.

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