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Access issues at Tate Modern Olafur Eliasson installation provoke anger

Limited access to an Olafur Eliasson art installation in Tate Modern has provoked an angry response from Irish Sunday Independent writer Ciara O’Connor. While visiting the Eliasson exhibition In Real Life, O’Connor, who is a wheelchair user, found that she could not access the steel mirror installation Your Spiral View as its walkway is not accessible to wheelchairs.

Her complaint on Twitter has prompted an apology from the Tate, but no resolution to the issue. The installation consists of a tunnel eight metres, through which visitors walk, the steel plates creating a kaleidoscopic effect around them as they move. The tunnel can only be reached via two steps. “In the grand scheme of supremely inaccessible London, it barely registered,” commented O’Connor.

Olafur Eliasson

Attendant’s “weirdly defensive” response

However, when O’Connor and her friend tried to obtain a ramp from a gallery attendant in order to access the work, the response was “cross and weirdly defensive” according to the writer, who claimed she was treated “like she was a naughty and particularly stupid toddler” and told to go round the side of the exhibit rather than through it.

O’Connor was particularly frustrated because the Eliasson exhibits are intended to be interactive, allowing the visitor to “play with light, mirrors, mist, fire, water”. She noted that a couple of pieces were placed too high for her to play with them, but it was clearly the 2002 piece <i>Your Spiral View</i> that had caused her the greatest anger, which she voiced in a series of Tweets.

The Danish-Icelandic artist joined in the discussion on Twitter, since it was claimed the lack of a ramp was down to curatorial choice. Eliasson acknowledged that the old installation made full access difficult and responded that he was “exploring solutions with Tate”. Ultimately, though, it emerged that the walkway was too narrow to safely allow wheelchair access and the Tate apologised for the inaccessibility, stating that the issues raised would be “taken on board in future decision-making”.

Support on Twitter for O’Connor’s reaction

Clearly expecting there would be no resolution to the matter, O’Connor responded angrily, pointing out that the themes of the Eliasson retrospective relate to bodies, accessibility and agency. O’Connor took particular issue with a quote from the artist himself in the exhibition, in which he described how in museums “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”.

The irony of this perspective was not lost on O’Connor, who responded furiously “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”.

O’Connor found support from other Twitter users, who also took issue both with Tate Modern and the artist. Her original post has now received thousands of likes and retweets. One visually impaired visitor described how she was denied access to the same installation with her guide dog as the grid floor might cause injury to the dog’s paws. Despite suggesting a safe alternative, she was not allowed to access Your Spiral View.

Access for all debate reinvigorated

The row has reinvigorated the general debate about accessibility in museums, causing questions about whether Tate Modern’s response is legal. Twitter user David Gillon, for instance, pointed out that the Tate probably contravened the 2010 Equality Act’s anticipatory duty requirement to make exhibits accessible, with “reasonable adjustments” if required.

O’Connor’s response was impassioned. “I don’t want to go around the outside. I want a fucking ramp. I want elevators. I want wide doorways…I don’t want to ask permission. I don’t want to be grateful for every reasonable adjustment.”

Tate Modern’s own Diversity and Inclusion Policy, available online, states that the gallery is a Level 2 Disability Confident Scheme Member, an initiative that aims to help employers make the most of the opportunities provided by
employing disabled people.

The fervent and supportive response to O’Connor’s description of her experience could have consequences for museums and the nature of their installations. The fact that Tate Modern has clear employment policies, as well as policies relating to general access to the museum for visitors, raises the question of why staff were apparently unprepared for O’Connor’s access request to this installation.

It seems likely that UK museums will be re-examining both their policies and how they are implemented in the wake of the response. The situation is not unique to the UK, however, as recently many art galleries in New York found themselves on the receiving end of legal claims that they were in breach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in this instance because their websites were not accessible to visually impaired or blind people.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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