PREVIEW If you didn't experience The Weather Project, Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson's 2003 installation in London's Tate Modern, chances are you've seen images of it in any number of nonart publications or photo blogs. The piece a dramatic emulation of an amber sun's atmosphere, created with such simple elements as a bank of lights and a mirrored ceiling reportedly attracted two million visitors, many of them repeat customers, who sprawled on the public floor, pondered their reflections on the ceiling, and basked in the glow. It was, to say the least, a popular work of art. But high visibility and big crowds, in art world circles, are usually viewed with skepticism or met with critical intimations of diluted intentions, easy punch lines, or sellouts.
Eliasson's work the subject of two concurrent exhibitions, including a midcareer survey and a presentation of a frozen BMW hydrogen-powered race car made as part of the car company's high-profile art program, that open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week is that rare animal that manages to appease a broad public as well as art cognoscenti. His experiential and frequently sublime projects are usually created with exceedingly common, immaterial, and noncommodifiable elements, including air, water, light, and water, though in their sophisticated deployment, Eliasson who operates a studio employing 30 architects, scientists, researchers, and fabricators makes art that is the antithesis of funky. The artist harnesses natural and perceptual phenomenon, alludes to environmental concerns, acknowledges an artistic connection to the California Light and Space artists of the 1960s and '70s, and taps into the allure and resources of high-end luxury brands. He rigorously engages in thorny intellectual dialogues on the nature of art in the 21st century. In short, Eliasson is an unlikely candidate as a popular artist.
In his case, approachability is only one component of very layered intentions. "I've always been very proud of being a mainstream artist and not trying to be on the outskirts of society," Eliasson confessed to me during a recent visit to the city to supervise the labor-intensive installation of his SFMOMA-originated show. "I have no interest in being avant-garde in the sense that it means I'm not part of society. There's a great value to be found in feeling a part of society."
In fact, Eliasson's works are notable for the way the viewer's participation makes them complete. His installations rely on perception and immersion. It's not for nothing that his survey exhibition is titled "Take Your Time."
The exhibition entailed a major transformation of the fifth-floor gallery at SFMOMA from an expansive, open room to an elliptical warren of spaces to let visitors experience such self-descriptive pieces as Room for One Color, 360 Degree Room for All Colours, Moss Wall, and One-Way Colour Tunnel, the latter an elaborate new piece in which the museum's skylight bridge becomes a kaleidoscopic passageway from one direction, a monochromatic one from the other. Eliasson had much to do with the layout of the show, which is designed to slow down the experience, and the word temporality and the idea of its manipulation are invoked frequently in conversation.
"The reason I think the sequence of my installation here is so crucial and my involvement with it is about implementing temporal ideas into the show [is] a lot of the pieces are actually slow," he said. "The tunnel [over the bridge] has no central way of looking at it. You have to walk through it one way and then another to experience it.