Inside City Outside (walking in colour)

Today I went to see the first solo exhibition in Berlin, Innen Stadt Aussen (Inside City Outside), by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (who has been a resident of Berlin for many years).

I can’t recommend this exhibition highly enough – if you are anywhere near Berlin, you should definitely go to see it.

It’s at the Martin Gropius Bau, which is a powerhouse of a museum, showing major blockbuster exhibitions: at the moment, the crowd-puller is a huge Frida Kahlo exhibition. When we arrived, people were queuing to buy tickets, then queuing again to enter one level of the musuem, then queuing again to get into the exhibition. We were always intending to go to the Eliasson exhibition, but the sight of so many people simply existing in a kind of suspended animation, made me doubly glad that we had decided just to go to the one show.

And the show… it’s really quite hard to describe, because it had such an impact on me. It’s the sort of experience that I think I will remember for many, many years to come.

I say this partly because I can still vividly recall my first encounter with Eliasson’s work – back in 2003, in London. Eliasson was one of the artists who was invited to produce a work for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, the massive entry hall of the former power station. Eliasson’s work – The Weather Project – created a giant sun at one end of the hall, with the effect that the entire space was bathed in an orange glow: the chimerical orb, no matter what time of day it was viewed, seemed to be in the middle of setting or rising, pouring warmth into the cold grey of a London winter:

You can see in these pictures how rugged up against the cold we all are…

And yet, people, while viewing this artwork, acted as though they were at the beach, lying on the ground, in sunbathing mode, prone before the image of a golden sun:

The Weather Project was an unforgettable experience, one that I always felt lucky to have seen. And now, this solo show lines up beside The Weather Project in offering one of the most outrageously immersive artworks I have ever encountered…

The show is designed to explore notions of internal and external space as it relates to the urban setting. It starts in sedate but pleasurable fashion, laying paving stones from one room to another in the museum, and offering the visitor the unexpected delights of walking on an artwork:

Eliasson has a fetish for light and mirrors (The Weather Project, like most magic tricks, was all done with mirrors and really big lights), and some of the subsequent rooms show him playing with these devices, in a way that allows the spectator to have a lot of fun as well. In one room there are some undulating mirrors that distort sections of bodies across an entire wall in patterns that resemble the tiles and paving stones that are routinely used in urban space:

In others, bodies are projected against white screens in shades of pink and blue, or violet and green. Here’s me, taking a photograph of myself in the artwork…

…and he builds sculptures of silver metal which contain cleverly placed lights and mirrors so that when one peeps into the internal cavities it appears that there is no floor, with the sculpture falling away to nothing before one’s feet.

There’s also a fascinating piece of moving-image art, a short film made around various locations (such as Moritzplatz and Kortbusser Tor) in Berlin, using a mirror to generate a sense of liquidity and shiver in the density of urban locations.

But in addition to these, there are two absolutely show-stopping artworks. In one, you enter a space that is constructed entirely of angled glass. It is a narrow space, an inverted triangle, but the mirrors make it appear to open to infinity on all sides, so that one fears to approach its edges, which initially seem to fall away, but then tilt to reveal another floor on which one is reflected, standing firmly and looking back into the main space. Sadly, this room was populated with museum staff whose main aim seemed to be to stop people taking pictures, and so I can’t show you what this amazing room looked like in any way.

It seemed like this might have been the highlight of the exhibition, until we entered another room, which was taped off, and which had a warning notice on the door stating that only children over six years old could enter….

This space inside this room was as hot as a sauna, and initially appeared to be filled with steam. (Although i know I should be fearless in my experience of art, I’m ashamed to report that my first thought was ‘oh no, my hair will go frizzy…’.) But the steam was actually smoke (and so, my hair survived, un-frizzed). The room was filled with smoke, which was coloured by long narrow lights in the ceiling, segmented by barriers, which shone down into the space. The lights in the ceiling were ordered according to the spectrum, so that the smoke in the room was in effect dyed according to the colour of the lights above. The dense smoke in the room meant that you could see only as far ahead as an arm’s length, meaning that all depth of field was lost, and you moved through the spectrum of colour, from one to the next, with no horizon, and no sense of boundary, horizon or limit.

It was utterly disorienting and completely transporting. You were literally walking in colour. At one point, in the red-to-violet section of the spectrum, the colour was so intense that my eyes could hardly make sense of what they were seeing.

And so we stumbled around, joyfully, for quite some time, until we admitted it was time to leave (well, it was as hot as a sauna – maybe it is designed to be hot so that people don’t stay in there for hours). And we emerged from the room and into the body of the museum (where people were still queuing hopelessly for the Kahlo exhibition), blissed out on colour.

I’ll always be grateful to Eliasson for this experience. A thoughtful, thought-provoking exhibition, capped with a mind-blowing artwork which takes on some of the limits of the relationship between artwork and spectator and dissolves them into coloured smoke.

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