But the bespectacled, unfailingly mild-mannered Eliasson, who is of Icelandic ancestry and grew up in Denmark, is a good Scandinavian who finds the whole idea of success, not to mention celebrity, vaguely embarrassing. When The Weather Project drew more than one million visitors and the Tate asked him to extend the installation for a few extra months, he politely declined, fearful that the piece would become a kind of grotesque commercial for the museum, or for himself. “It was very important for me that the piece maintain some decency and dignity and some kind of distinct relationship with the content which was initially behind it,” he says.
Eliasson’s work typically concerns itself with sensory perception and spectral phenomena. Like one of his early influences, Robert Irwin, Eliasson wants to make viewers aware of their own role in the process of experiencing art. And by using a range of media from the natural world—wind, ice, arctic moss—he often appeals to one’s senses of smell, sound and touch as well as sight. “In this increasingly technological, digital era,” says Grynsztejn, “art often separates us from our bodies, from our senses, from the world. Here is somebody who constantly refuses that, and who constantly returns us to a visceral, present-tense experience.”
One of Eliasson’s first mature pieces, which is being reassembled for the SFMOMA show, was a 1993 installation that he titled, with more earnestness than irony, Beauty. It consists of a single spotlight trained on a section of perforated tubing. When water is pumped through the tube, minuscule droplets descend from it, producing a curtain of mist and, when viewed from certain angles, a rainbow. It’s an archetypal Eliasson piece because it both exalts and demystifies an environmental cliché, while encouraging the viewer to move around it and engage with it in a fresh, dynamic way.