In early October 2015, on a clear day with very little wind, a tugboat left the harbour of Nuuk in southern Greenland to explore a dozen icebergs for an exhibition in Paris called “Ice Watch,” by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and the geologist Minik Rosing.
The installation of a circle of icebergs with twenty metres was installed at the Place du Panthéon during the 2015 Climate Change Conference. The tugboat captain was Kuupik Kleist, the former Prime Minister of Greenland, a man in his late fifties who was born and raised north of Nuuk. “Ninety per cent of our country is covered by ice,” Kleist says. “It is a great part of our national identity. We follow the international discussion, of course, but to every Greenlander, just by looking out the window at home, it is obvious that something dramatic is happening.”
The idea of “Ice Watch” is twofold: the ice is arranged like a watch, or a clock face, to indicate the passing of time, and, in real-time, observers will be able to watch the ice melt. 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 invents space. And it is on the street in Paris—and a street in Paris can’t be more important than it is right now. We all feel that strongly” (2015).
In Greenland, sailing out in the Davis Strait, past Nuuk Harbor, trawling slowly, the ice Kleist was looking for wasn’t just any kind of ice but icebergs made of compressed snow, snow that has fallen for tens of thousands of years, which have broken off from the glacier, in a process called “calving.” “We can only take what nature gives us,” Eliasson says.
“For Paris, the ice gave us big chunks!” The most significant chunks of ice displayed in Paris are just short of ten tons, about the size of a London bus.
Minik Rosing, whose work on photosynthesis in the Greenland Sea Beds reset the date for the beginning of life on Earth, from 2.8 billion years ago to 3.7 billion, explains, “Inside the iceberg, you see snow layers in sequence as you go back in time. Because it is compressed, the air between the snowflakes that fell thousands of years ago is trapped in tiny bubbles.”8
Once Kleist and his crew lassoed the ice calves, they were dragged back into the harbour, lifted by heavy cranes, stored in icehouses, and then transferred by container ship to Denmark before a ten-hour trip, in a truck, to Paris. (The most extended trucks are the cheapest, Eliasson notes; Bloomberg Philanthropies underwrote the project.) Ice, like glass, is both complex and fragile. “We had to be very, very careful. We didn’t want to open the container in Denmark and find a thousand ice cubes!” Kleist explains.
Eliasson was waiting in Copenhagen. “I thought, I know what ice looks like—I’ve seen ice frequently, these days! But when I opened the truck, it was shivering and shining in the warm air of Copenhagen. The ice had gotten a shock! I put my hand on it, and suddenly I drew my hand back! I said to myself, the ice is really cold! Cold ice on your hand is very different than reading about how it is melting.” After a pause. “From the perspective of the ice, humans look really warm.”
Some of the questions preoccupying Eliasson in his work these days include: What is the relationship between data and cognition? How is data translated into doing?
Thinking into feeling? This suggests that we must think of a plurality of perspectives to realign our relationship with the planet. “In our current ecological emergency, there’s a lot of data, but at this point, we’re dumping ecological data on ourselves. It’s not helping. We don’t need to be doing that for one more minute. Olafur is putting pieces of ice there and saying, ‘Let’s try to start a conversation.'”
“Ice Watch” was first mounted in Copenhagen last year, outside the Town Hall, while the I.C.C.P. climate report was being written, in what Eliasson calls “a trial run.” François Zimeray, the French Ambassador to Denmark, encouraged Eliasson to bring it to Paris. There was no question, according to Zimeray, of the exhibit being cancelled after the attacks there in November. “On the contrary! The vocation of Paris is cultural life and the exchange of ideas. It is so important now to show that life is alive in the streets, in the very centre of Paris!”
Eliasson and his wife, the art historian Marianne Keogh, have two young children, Zakarias and Alma, adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia when asked how having children have changed his work’s orientation. “You know, my kids are more elaborately agile in the digital mode than I am. My generation experienced a time of innocence, but children now have never known a time without the challenge of climate change. I try to ask my children not what nature looks like; they know what everything looks like—atrocities in Paris, in Syria, everywhere. But they don’t know what it feels like. Public space in which things happen is vitally important now, and especially in Paris, where space is generated by civic consciousness.”
“The Earth is a public space; the space is my host—I am putting ice in the palm of Paris. The exhibition is the Place du Pantheon; if a passerby puts her ear to the ice, she will hear a little moment of pop and crack. What is released is the cleanest possible air. It is fifteen thousand years old. Eliasson says, “It is a little pop that has travelled fifteen thousand years to meet you in Paris and tell the story of climate change.”
We understand an idea and the moral, the principles of “Ice Watch”, to start the conversation visually and tactilely. When we strip personalities and experiences from our individuality, we are oxygen breathing energy-consuming audio-visual, tactile animals. By placing these alive deforming pieces of art in front of us, allowing us to interact to immerse ourselves in this changing narrative of art, by drawing the visual conclusions that warming up the place people are destroying our planet, we understand the development of knowledge more concise.