By all objective measures, it’s raining on this spring day in Berlin: Massive drops of water are pelting the metal ceiling of Olafur Eliasson’s studio, a three-story workshop in a former train depot. But whenever Eliasson is around, one is hesitant to come to any hasty conclusions about the weather. In the course of his relatively brief career, the 40-year-old installation artist has become a master at manipulating natural phenomena. He has made waterfalls go uphill, dyed rivers bright green and created entire microclimates indoors. For his biggest commission to date, The Weather Project, (2003), Eliasson transformed the massive Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern into a seductively misty, futuristic environment, complete with manmade fog and a fake sun. Many visitors spontaneously lay down on the museum’s cold concrete floor, basking in the pseudo-radiance of the golden orb, which, upon inspection, revealed itself as a simple assemblage of 200 monofilament bulbs (the kind used in street lamps), arranged in a half circle and reflected in the mirrored ceiling.
Today’s precipitation, it turns out, is plain old rain, from plain old clouds. Still, as Eliasson meanders around his studio (or “laboratory,” as he calls it) while his staff of about 15 engineers, architects and technicians build plastic models and assemble walls of prismatic mirrors, it’s clear he has dozens more experiments in the works.
Eliasson, who’s been likened to everyone from Isaac Newton to P.T. Barnum, has a singular place in the pantheon of contemporary artists: He’s recognized simultaneously for his intellectual rigor and his ability to connect with the masses. That combination makes him a museum curator’s dream, which is why his name is ubiquitous on arts listings pages around the world these days. His first major U.S. retrospective opens in September at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before heading to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Dallas Museum of Art. “The questions Olafur is asking about art, and about art’s intersection with the larger world, are the ones that need to be asked right now,” says the show’s curator, Madeleine Grynsztejn. “At the same time, he’s making works that are drop-dead beautiful.”