Ciara O’Connor had recently returned to London after vacationing in New York when she decided to visit the Tate Modern’s latest exhibition, Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life. But upon entering the galleries, the wheelchair user quickly realized that many of the interactive installations were inaccessible and out of reach for people like her with disabilities.
On Friday, O’Connor, who writes for the Irish Sunday Independent newspaper, detailed on Twitter her frustration when trying to enter Eliasson’s “Spiral View” (2002), a 26-foot-long tunnel constructed from reflective steel plates that produce a kaleidoscopic effect inside.
“I’ve just come out of Tate Modern, to see Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, In Real Life. It’s a series of mostly interactive installations that play with light, mirrors, mist, fire, water. A couple of pieces were too high for me to play with, but whatever — that’s unavoidable,” she posted.
“At the end, there’s a whole room dedicated to a mirrored tunnel: you’re meant to walk through it. It had two steps up to it. In the grand scheme of supremely inaccessible London, it barely registered.”
O’Connor’s friend Alice asked an attendant if there was a ramp available, but he became “cross and weirdly defensive,” according to the writer. The attendant reportedly told Alice that not having a ramp was “the curator’s choice” and suggested that O’Connor simply “go around the side.”
Eliasson responded to O’Connor’s Twitter thread, saying that the sculpture is “old” and that “to acknowledge its original shape while offering full access, I am exploring solutions with Tate.” The Danish-Icelandic artist promised that he would let her know “when we have news.” The Tate also responded to O’Connor’s post, saying it was working with Eliasson and his studio to address the situation.
In a statement today, the Tate apologized for its lack of wheelchair access, but after “a full assessment” with Eliasson and technicians, decided that the sculpture “cannot be made safely accessible for wheelchair users.” The museum said that “even if a ramp were added, the mirrored walkway that is an integral part of the sculpture is structurally too narrow to be made safe for wheelchair use.”
“We decided to include ‘Your Spiral View’ in the exhibition as it is the only sculpture of its type in Olafur Eliasson’s body of work which can be loaned for exhibitions, and a more accessible alternative does not exist. We recognize that this has caused an access issue for wheelchair users for which we are sorry and the comments we have received will be taken on board in future decision-making.”
O’Connor had anticipated these comments in her Twitter thread, noting that Eliasson himself explores questions of interactivity, bodies, responsibility, and agency throughout the exhibition. Numerous texts for the show talk about changing the experience of seeing art. She pointed out one particular line that reads: “In a museum, we all move as if we don’t have a body — or at least we don’t refer to bodily movement as a co-producing element when we’re looking at art.”
She responded to the sentiment in another post: “Fuck that. Fuck your over-intellectualizing and big talk that obscures the fact that you only produce, curate, exhibit art for certain bodies. Fuck you for assuming that everyone who likes art and museums gets to ‘move as if they don’t have a body.'”
“I never get to lose myself in a picture, or wander in a reverie,” she added, “I am always, ALWAYS aware of my body, how it’s blocking people, how it’s taking up space, how it’s inconvenient and cumbersome.”
“That’s the story of my life, and of every disabled person’s life. Going around things. Looking from the outside. Watching other people enjoy life, art, transport, whatever, the way that it’s ‘supposed’ to be enjoyed … I want a fucking ramp. I want elevators. I want wide doorways. I want accessible toilets that aren’t storage cupboards. I want to get on a train, and go to a place all by myself. I don’t want to ask permission. I don’t want to be grateful for every reasonable adjustment.”
O’Connor’s response has struck a chord with social media users; her Twitter thread has gained over 2,200 retweets and more than 3,700 likes. Ableism in the art world has become a global issue with conversations developing about everything from the presence of benches in galleries to how cultural institutions have failed to accommodate disabled and neurodiverse communities within their walls. In January, more than 75 galleries were sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for failing to make their websites accessible to the blind and visually impaired. And in April, protesters picketed architect Thomas Heatherwick’s “Vessel” at Hudson Yards. Activists from the Anti-Stairs Club organized a demonstration of disabled and non-disabled individuals who saw the honeycomb structure of 154 stairways as flouting the rules of ADA compliance.
Responding to O’Connor’s experience, Twitter users with disabilities shared stories of their own difficult experiences with museums. Deborah Persaud said she was unable to access “Your Spiral View” with her guide dog because there was no safety mat for the grid floor, which would have hurt her dog’s paws. “No alternative offered but attendant [very] apologetic. Could have worked if someone held him and I was guided,” Persaud added
Some commenters had also questioned whether or not the Tate’s Access Advisory Group still exists. Several users said they had once participated with the group, but have not been asked back. The Tate did not immediately respond for comment on whether or not the advisory body still exists.