Ventilator Credit: Nathan Keay

In this touring retrospective, at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 13, Danish artist Olafur Eliasson often seems more scientist than artist—and we’re the guinea pigs. His “uniquely participatory works,” says the PR, “examine the intersection of nature and science.” And his imposing sculptures and installations even look like scientific experiments, in true postmodern fashion exposing whatever projectors, cords, and electronic control units are needed to make them function.

Eliasson controls his variables too, generally isolating just one or two phenomena for investigation in each work. The crucial one in Moss Wall (1994)—a towering installation of Arctic reindeer moss that looks like a faded Berber carpet hung up to dry—is its earthy scent. The earliest piece in the show, Beauty (1993), is simply a dimly lit room with a row of nozzles on the ceiling emitting a fine mist. Depending on where you stand, you might see a rainbow.

Eliasson claims that viewers’ varying perceptions of his works complete them. But isn’t that true of all art? And by aggressively defining the experience he limits the range of responses. Room for One Colour (1997) assaults the eye with its radioactive orange-yellow glow, jaundicing the flesh of everyone within reach of its mono-frequency lights. Harsh and coercive, this encompassing environment produced just one response in me—the wish to escape.

Eliasson doesn’t call himself a minimalist, but his work conforms to the classic definitions of minimalism set out by artist-theorist Robert Morris, among them the importance of “the entire situation. . . . Control is necessary if the variables of object, light, space, body, are to function.” Critic Michael Fried argues in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” that “literalism”—his derogatory term for minimalism—”is basically a theatrical effect or quality.” Three decades later, in an interview, Fried offered a less abstract characterization: “When you went into a gallery and saw a show by Donald Judd or Bob Morris, there was a definite buzz that got set up.” Fried despised that theatricality, which he felt undermined the viewer’s absorption in the art.

Eliasson embraces it. Interviewed by MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn, who curated the original version of this show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he said, “You ‘see’ and you ‘see yourself seeing.’ Or in other words: you immerse yourself in something . . . while being aware of that immersion.”

I found it hard to become immersed, however, when I felt like fleeing, or when there was little or nothing to seduce my mind.

Eliasson’s works promote art-viewing as theater—the distracting act of seeing others see. A woman eyeing the mist in Beauty announced to her male companion, “I want to get naked under there.” Inside 360° Room for All Colours (2002), a cylindrical enclosure whose lit walls shift from one sherbet shade to another, a giggly couple sat cross-legged, knees to the wall, staring at it for a very long time. And the glee I felt when a viewer’s glasses briefly caught a spotlight in one of the four Mirror Door pieces (2008), transforming him into a white-eyeballed creature from a horror flick, wasn’t actually enlightening. Inside the Model Room (2003), a maquette of an openwork brass dome contains a little, featureless cutout of a human, perhaps an indication of Eliasson’s sense of his audience.

Eliasson’s works are often fun—and pretty, too, like Colour Space Embracer (2005), which sprays moving arcs of vivid light over three walls. It can be exciting when his pieces interact. Stand inside One-Way Colour Tunnel (2007), for example: its translucent panes allow you to see nearby works. Stand outside of it and, because the panes are also reflective, you can see mirror images of Soil Quasi Bricks (2003), which looks like a castle wall against a sunset sky created by cast-off light from 360° Room for All Colours. Cool.

One work has an antic humor: Ventilator (1997) consists of a large black desk fan, tethered to the ceiling by a couple cords and turned on, so that it revolves around the room, buzzing the heads of visitors like an uberannoying fly.

Last summer, as part of his ongoing research on the intersection of nature and science, Eliasson installed four ten-story waterfalls at New York City waterfront locations. On exhibit from June to October 2008, the project reportedly cost $15.5 million, most of it donated by Mayor Bloomberg’s closely held company, Bloomberg LP. The investment supposedly paid off in $69 million worth of tourist spending. This wasn’t the first instance of corporate/civic interest in Eliasson’s work; he said in a 2007 ARTINFO interview online that he gets offered “all sorts of commissions.” One of the few he’s accepted came from Louis Vuitton: in 2006, during the winter holidays, the luxury leather goods company installed Eliasson’s Eye See You—a light that looks like an eye—in 350 shop windows.

Corporations’ insistent overtures say something about the nature and appeal of his art—stylish, flip, and devoid of strong statements. “I would like to see my work live in a resistant way to society,” Eliasson told the ARTINFO interviewer, defining “resistant” as opposing the “commodification of our senses.” I think he’s fooling himself.