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The artist adding a chill factor to climate change

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson provokes emotional and physical reactions about climate change by skilfully playing with the natural elements.

By February 11, 2021May 23rd, 2023No Comments
©Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch London, photo by Justin Sutcliff

Best known for his imaginative larger-than-life art installations, Scandinavian artist and visionary, Olafur Eliasson, entices our senses by mixing the ‘natural’ with the ‘man-made’, innovatively using fire, light, temperature, pressure, water and ice.  

In 2003, visitors to Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’ arrived to see the sun and the sky, metaphorically put inside London’s Tate Modern turbine hall. Complete with its own weather forecast service, 200 lamps and mist machines, people’s interaction with the project was extraordinary. Over two million visitors came to see and interact with the project. Some came to enjoy picnics in fancy dress, while others even brought a canoe!

The climate change chill

After ‘The Weather Project’, climate change became a recurrent theme in Eliasson’s works. Bringing a cool factor to a hot topic, Eliasson launched a trial run of his public project ‘Ice Watch’, where he placed massive blocks of glacial ice in a public spot for people to touch and interact with. The free-floating icebergs from a fjord in Greenland, serve as a crisp reminder of the Arctic ice caps’ critical state.

Eliasson’s first Ice Watch installation was cleverly placed outside Copenhagen’s town hall, while the UN IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report was being written. In 2015, the work was reinstated in the French capital just when world leaders were about the sign the Paris Agreement – a legally binding international treaty on climate change.

©Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch Paris, photo by Martin Argyroglo

Arranged like a clock face, the 12 ice blocks represent the passing of time; while simultaneously, observers were able to watch the ice melt in real time. Eliasson explains:

“A circle is like a compass. It leaves navigation to the people who are inside it. It is a mistake to think that the work of art is the circle of ice—it is the space it invents.”

Ice Watch London

In 2018, continuing to raise awareness about climate change, Eliasson brought 30 huge blocks of Greenland ice* to the City of London for a third edition of ‘Ice Watch’, inviting viewers to touch, and even drink the melted ice from these centuries-old frozen water blocks. Eliasson is interested which experiences or knowledge encourages people to take action: do we act based on knowledge or emotion, or perhaps both?

©Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch London, photo by Justin Sutcliff
*In reality, Greenland loses the equivalent of 1,000 such blocks of ice per second throughout the year. [source]

In time for COP24, the ancient icebergs were again collected from the waters of Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland. 24 of these blocks were arranged in a circle on Bankside outside Tate Modern and six more outside Bloomberg’s European Headquarters.

Inside the ice blocks, compressed snowflakes were layered in sequence going back in time with air trapped in visible bubbles between snow that fell thousands of years ago. Imagine touching and even drinking that?

“It is clear that we have only a short period of time to limit the extreme effects of climate change. By enabling people to experience and actually touch the blocks of ice in this project, I hope we will connect people to their surroundings in a deeper way and inspire radical change. We must recognise that together we have the power to take individual actions and to push for systemic change. Let’s transform climate knowledge into climate action.”

Olafur Eliasson
©Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch London, photo by Charlie Forgham-Bailey

As the ice gradually thaws, members of the public have an opportunity to encounter the tangible effects of climate change by seeing and feeling the ice melt away. A passer-by could hear a little pop or crack as the ice melts, releasing fifteen-thousand-year-old air, the cleanest we can encounter in modern days. Eliasson says, “It is a little pop that has travelled fifteen thousand years to meet you and tell the story of climate change.”

What’s the carbon footprint of ‘Ice Watch’?

Aware of the irony that lies at the heart of ‘Ice Watch’, Eliasson worked closely on the project’s development with Minik Rosing, Professor of Geology at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The carbon footprint of Ice Watch has been monitored by the environmental NGO Julie’s Bicycle. It was estimated that the 2018 installation emitted the same amount of carbon emissions as that of a school trip from London to Greenland.

©Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch London, photo by Group Greenland

“Ten thousand years ago there was 30% less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so the smell of the ice blocks should be the smell of the air from 10,000 years ago.”

Learn from the past, listen to the future!

In September 2019, Eliasson was appointed as UNDP’s Goodwill Ambassador. In addition to engaging in panel discussions and open conversations with young activists globally, he is keen on engaging future generations with topics most relevant to them, digital data, environmental activism, creativity, innovation and social interaction in a fast-moving world.

Earth Speakr © Olafur Eliasson

When it comes to climate change, he is aware that the drastic consequences of this issue will affect new generations to come. In his latest artwork, Earth Speakr, he gives children a platform to share their opinions and concerns, and help bringing the world forward by creating a positive vision for the future. The app, which is free to download, uses playful interactive technology to animate objects or surroundings and invites kids to speak up for the planet and adults to listen up to what they have to say!

With his simple, but logistically complex installations and artwork, Eliasson connects the present to the past. His cleverly timed work reminds us of our role at this moment in time in the face against climate change.