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Olafur Eliasson on his daring melting ice blocks installation

Large blocks of ice have been placed around London in a physical protest on climate change

Tuesday (December 11) marked the launch of renowned Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s new major piece of outdoor public art in London. Ice blocks sourced from the waters of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland have been placed outside the Tate Modern and around the rest of London, in a visual call-to-arms against climate change. They are just 30 of the 10,000 that are falling into the sea every second. Scary, isn’t it?

Ice Watch London, a collaboration with award-winning Greenlandic geologist Minik Rosing, aims to remind us to act responsibly and demand action by bringing the effects of climate change closer to home. “I think making abstract things explicit and tangible and clear is one of the ways to motivate people to do something” Eliasson tells Dazed.

Eliasson believes that inherently, our human nature focuses only on the issues that are right in front of us. With that in mind, the artist and his team have brought the fragility of our world into sharp, physical focus. Olafur further explained “we mistakenly think ‘well, it’s not in my lifetime and it’s so far away from me’. We forget that Greenland is actually around the corner from London, it’s right here. We also forget that the decreasing cooling from Greenland influences the weather in China and America alike”.

The ice blocks were excavated from Greenland’s Nuup Kangerlua fjord, where they had fallen from a large ice sheet. They were then transported to the UK on a cargo ship and dropped at Immingham Docks near Grimsby, before then being transported by truck to the capital and dropped around London via crane. Each block weighs between one and six tonnes at the time of their installation. 

The installation’s dynamic between art and science shows that they can have similarly urgent objectives. Science can help us act responsibly and art can inspire change. Eliasson explains: “I think they can co-produce each other, they can sustain each other especially when it comes to art often being more emotional and experience driven, but it is good to also allow the data and the science to be part of that”. Contrastingly, president Trump is an outspoken climate change denier who acts only on emotion and fragmented ideas, with no scientific basis at all.

With regards to the intersection of art and science, the United States president’s decision-making shows a lack of care for either. Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, threatened to cut arts funding and went after the National Endowment Fund that facilitates the national creative community’s opportunities. When asked what Trump’s reaction might be to the project, Eliasson tells Dazed: “Well, honestly, I think he has made it very clear that he thinks art is rubbish and he’s not interested in culture. Culture has a long tradition of criticising arrogant and totalitarian people like Trump, so he probably wouldn’t say anything. I doubt that he would even recognise a work of art”.

Eliasson’s previous work at the Tate was his 2003 Turbine Hall installation, The Weather Project, which created the illusion of a huge yellow sun glowing in fog. This is the third part of his Ice Watch project, having previously melted huge ice blocks from the same fjord back in 2014 in Copenhagen.

It’s easy to feel helpless when we have dangerous world leaders in power, especially when change that would positively help the environment needs to happen at an institutional, policy level. Eliasson states that it’s down to both our “own individual commitment and systemic change... we are in a position to actually have a lot of choices, we can vote for politicians who have a strong commitment so in that sense projects like this can have an impact”.

Crucially, Rosing adds that although the installation is highlighting that the world’s mass excess is resulting in the rapid rate of melting ice, he wanted viewers to be “positive, optimistic and to enjoy what are beautiful pieces of art”. It marked the publication of the Fifth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. More recently, he debuted the Little Sun project – a handheld solar energy device which take five hours to charge in the sun to help give light to some of the 1.6 billion people who live without access to electricity. The devices are healthier, safer and cheaper than kerosene lamps. Eliasson plans to bring 4,000 of these solar light devices to Africa this autumn.

To see the ice blocks before they melt, you will have to make a visit before the weekend, as Eliasson predicts that they will mostly be gone by Saturday (December 15) or Sunday. What’s left of the installation will be brought to cultural and educational institutions around the country. Poignantly, as the artist is explaining that “nothing goes wasted”, a school class arrives to see the Tate installation. Eliasson gestures over: “see that little girl?” She’s touching the ice and taking a selfie with it. “So she’s now posting that on her social media and spreading the word”. Eliasson’s delighted, and so he should be. More than ever, we need art to help us make sense of a world of change and to make space for connectivity.

Olafur Eliasson returns to the Tate Modern for a major survey of his career so far on July 11 2019 – January 5 2020. You can read more about the exhibition here