Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’ confronts Londoners with the realities of climate change
It’s a brisk 1°C on London’s Southbank. The sun has just touched the Switch House, and is hastily creeping towards 24 ice boulders arranged at the front of Tate Modern. They’re already melting. Great blue-white tears collect in sad puddles, that will eventually glissade into the Thames and vanish.
This is no festive cocktail-inspired installation, and these are no ordinary ice-cubes. This is the third iteration of Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch, an artistic endeavour that aims to draw attention to Greenland’s melting ice caps. It debuted in Copenhagen in 2014, and was exhibited in Paris the following year. It’s arrival in London marks Eliasson’s first outdoor installation in the city, and precedes a major retrospective of his work, expected to be a highlight of Tate Modern’s 2019 calendar.
The morning chill of 1°C snaps at the extremities, as if nature is trying to remind us that the earth’s temperature has risen by approximately this much since the turn of the 20th century – and it’s ever increasing. Created in collaboration with Minik Rosing, professor of geology at the Natural History Museum of Copenhagen and Denmark, Ice Watch aims to make the impact of climate change a more immediate, physical experience. ‘Since 2015, the melting of ice in Greenland has raised global sea level by 2.5mm,’ he explains. ‘Eventually, Greenland’s ice waters will flow through the Thames.’ This violent destruction of nature is happening silently, almost imperceptively around us. Ice Watch forces us to look.
These particular shards of ice were taken from the waters of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland, where they were melting into the ocean after having been lost from the ice sheet. As well as being messengers with political motive, and objects of protest, they are things of striking beauty. Like slabs of marble, each has its own personality: some are near transcluscent, others densely opaque; some have lightly cratered surfaces, others are ice-rink slick. One has a near-neon lightning strike running through its centre. Eliasson predicts it will take around four days for these glacial chunks – some of them truck-sized – to all but disappear. ‘Gather your family, your children, and bring them quickly if they want to see it,’ he advises, poignantly, unintentionally, drawing attention to the speed in which Greenland’s ices will slip away from us.
To see these things of ethereal natural beauty drip into nothing is what Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries, calls a ‘visceral experience’. It’s also jarringly sad, evoking a very real sense of loss. By positioning icebergs as art objects we can touch and connect with, we imbue them with the kind of emotion difficult to apply to scientific abstractions, statistics, or political rhetoric. As the COP24 climate change conference in Katowice, Poland gets under way, having a physical embodiment of environmental disaster thrust in front of us is more important than ever.
A dog splashes a ball through the rapidly forming puddle waterway, a young couple take a wintry selfie, a coterie of school children scratch at the icey edges in gloved hands, cawing ‘Is it real?’. I wonder if the message is sinking in. Yes, it’s real. ‘Ten thousand chunks of ice this size disappear every second,’ Eliasson reminds us. ‘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.’ §