I was recently at the Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern with a lovely bunch of people, though none of us knew quite what to expect. To quote from the exhibition introduction – ‘Some artworks introduce natural phenomena such as rainbows to the gallery space. Others use reflections and shadows to play with the way we perceive and interact with the world. Many works result from the artist’s research into complex geometry, motion patterns, and his interest in colour theory’. Suffice it to say, it was rather the strange exhibition and I’m not quite sure what I took from it, but it was something good.

It was certainly rather unique. The exhibition has become known for the long tunnel-like room full of coloured smoke where one can see barely a metre ahead. I am sure that the Londoners among you have by now seen numerous profile photos changed to people looking (questionably) aesthetic among hazy smoke. I’ve counted seven changes in the last week alone… It is a fun room though, especially in a group, with some great photo opportunities and I must say even I snapped a couple of shots.

There was, importantly, a lot about climate change at the exhibition. Some may remember the Ice Watch installation by Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing outside the Tate at the end of last year. A group of twenty-four blocks of ice, each weighing between 1.5 to 5 tonnes, slowly melted in front of the towering building, demonstrating actively the physical effects of climate change on the ice of the Arctic. Glaciers continued to inspire Eliasson, with the work Glacial currents using ice ‘placed on top of washes of coloured pigment. This created swells and fades of colour as they melted onto the paper beneath’. There was also, in the final room, a A-Z wall about climate change. We need as much exposure to the crisis as possible, so it was great to see an artist so passionate about it.

The reason I write about this exhibition is because of a wonderful sign on the wall by the work Your Spiral View:

I know the photo isn’t great so I’ll write out what it says:

We are sorry that Your spiral view, made in 2002, is not fully accessible.
We investigated the option of adding a ramp but the walkway is too narrow to be made safe for wheelchair use.
This video shows the inside of the sculpture. We acknowledge that it is not the same as being able to experience it in person.
Learnings from this occasion will be taken on board for future decision-making.

I cannot tell you how happy I was to see this sign at an exhibition. Though I cannot relate to the experience of wheelchair users, my brother is physically challenged and therefore we often have to consider whether spaces will be practical for us to attend. By the time you get to the station and then on the numerous tubes to the Tate, he’s been walking for a while and so things become a challenge… Now he probably could have made it through this particular work, but it was so refreshing to see the exhibition taking ownership of its limitations. The rest of the exhibition was fully accessible, and this was the only point where a physically challenged individual could have found it difficult, or even impossible, to navigate.

Vitally, they very openly and clearly owned the limitation. The phrasing of this writing is,in my opinion, pretty perfect. The first sentence clearly apologises and accepts, without excuse, that this part of the exhibition is not fully accessible. It then makes clear an effort was made to make this accessible, but it was found impossible on this occasion. They then give an alternative, a video that took one through the spiral and tried to recapture the experience. But still immediately they recognise it is not the same experience, realising that a video substitute is still limited. And then finally, they actively make clear that they have recognised this all and are going to be active in considering this for future exhibitions. I was thoroughly impressed and so pleased to see an exhibition being so active in a drive for accessibility.

They may have, on this occasion, failed to make this particular room fully accessible, but by being so clear about this, they achieved quite a few things. First, I know that my mother and brother both would have been pleased to see this sign and definitely would have felt more comfortable knowing this had been recognised. Secondly, they showed it had been recognised, and therefore, without aiming to be tokenistic, demonstrated that they had actively considered accessibility during the exhibition. Finally, with the promise of future consideration of similar issues, I am sure it’d make those physically challenged more likely to continue to pursue seeing exhibitions.

So, a big shout out to Mark Godfrey and Emma Lewis, the curators, for being so proactive in their approach to accessibility at exhibitions. This is part of a bigger drive to understand that viewing art and exhibitions should be for everyone. The Tate is clearly tackling the issue of accessibility in a way that I am yet to see so many other galleries attempt to recognise, let alone attempt to challenge.

“The introduction of many minds into many fields of learning along a broad spectrum keeps alive questions about the accessibility, if not the unity, of knowledge.” – Edward Levi

References –

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/olafur-eliasson
https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/olafur-eliasson/exhibition-guide
https://www.shapearts.org.uk/news/accessible-curating

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