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Olafur Eliasson’s rallying cry

At the climate change conference in Paris, an artwork made of icebergs makes the challenge tangible

Helen Gordon | December 9th 2015

On the evening of December 2nd, 12 icebergs, each weighing around ten tonnes, were arranged in a circle in the middle of the Place du Pantheon in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Fished out of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland, they were now part of “Ice Watch” – a new artwork by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Minik Thorleif Rosing, professor of geology at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. It is one of a series of art projects set up in public spaces around Paris by the organisation Artists 4 Paris Climate, to coincide with the 2015 Paris climate change conference. 

The morning of December 3rd was sunny and warm. The icebergs – several towering over Eliasson and his assistants – glistened in the sunlight, some milky, almost entirely opaque, and others clear enough to see the individual air bubbles trapped deep inside. Viewed from a distance, the ice took on a cool, blue sheen. Each block was the result of thousands of years of compacted snowfall. It was familiar and strange and beautiful all at once. Passers-by stopped to touch them, running their hands across the uneven surfaces. Across the city, the bureaucrats were at work on plans to keep global warming below 2°C, the threshold agreed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The future of the Greenland ice sheet is probably dependent on the outcome of those talks. With rising temperatures, glacial ice now melts faster than it can be replaced by snowfall. 

Eliasson, perhaps best known for putting a glowing sun in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is interested in creating communal experiences. He makes what is sometimes called participatory art, where the work is incomplete without the audience’s interaction. “Ice Watch” demands a physical response before an intellectual one: what Eliasson calls the “wow” followed by the “aha”. He hopes that it will “make the climate challenges we are facing tangible and inspire shared commitment to taking climate action” – that it may prove more persuasive than a series of data sets. 

In addition to Eliasson, six other major artists were invited to submit work in Paris. These include the Argentine sculptor Tomás Saraceno, who hung two enormous silver and transparent plastic spheres from the ceiling of the Grand Palais exhibition centre to launch his “Aerocene” project, which envisages a “post-Anthropocene” existence where these sculptures might float around the world buoyed only by the heat of the sun and infra-red radiation from the Earth’s surface. Across the Seine, in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, the Australian Janet Laurence has created “Deep Breathing – Resuscitation for the Reef”. A series of glass tanks filled with bleached coral and the skeletons of marine creatures, some wrapped in what look like white muslin shrouds, others attached to tubes or suspended in laboratory beakers, it imagines the possibility of healing the Great Barrier Reef from the consequences of global warming and human activity. Alongside the installations, 15 artists including Edward Burtynsky, Tayrn Simon and Yin Xiuzhen have donated artworks to be auctioned at Christie’s to raise money for projects addressing climate change and desertification in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

The clock shape and punning title of Eliasson’s “Ice Watch” is a slightly clunky reminder that time is running out. Like much of the art in Paris, it acts as a rallying cry, setting out to shape behaviour and change opinion. “How can one make art,” Eliasson asks, “but also allow that art to be functionalised for the sake of, say, a climate debate? The answer to that is, imagine if we did not have a climate crisis. Would “Ice Watch” then still be a good work of art? I would say, yes it would.” Andrew Brown, the author of a book called “Art and Ecology Now”, suggests that artists help to define the ideas and beliefs of their cultural period. “You could say that it’s just artists doing their thing around the fringes of the conference – and to some extent that’s true – but if you didn’t have artists making art about these issues then perhaps you wouldn’t have the climate change conference in the first place.” 

By 3pm in the Place du Pantheon, the icebergs were sweating. Water dripped onto the paving stones and ran across the square. It was the sun. It was the hands of the passers-by warming the ice. Climate change writ small. “Scientists study the layers of the ice to learn about the past climate, but you can also see things happening in human society,” Minik Thorleif Rosing said. The Industrial Revolution shows up in the ice as a spike in levels of CO2. The invention of money (or at least the widespread adoption of coinage by the Greeks around the 6th century BC) is a spike in lead, a by-product of silver production. The ice is an archive of human history. “On the one hand it’s telling us about a process [climate change] that is happening right now, but it also gives us the historical background to understand where this present has come from.”

The water was now running downhill in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, visible in the distance. Eliasson, who had been filming with CNN, came over. “We were thinking that they would last through the conference,” he said, gesturing towards the icebergs. Rosing nodded: “And now they might even be gone in only three or four days.”

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