A cool art installation shows the effects of climate change. By Etan Smallman
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The first thing that I spot is the water trickling ever so slowly down the street. The ice caps are melting – though, this time, not in the Arctic, but across the pavements of London.
Olafur Eliasson ushers me towards one of the glistening, otherworldly blocks. We cup our ears against the ice and marvel at the sound of popping deep within, as the pieces, weighing up to six tons, disintegrate in the December sunshine.
The Icelandic-Danish artist is best known for The Weather Project, his giant artificial sun at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003, under which two million people came to bask.
Fifteen years on, he is back, this time shivering outside the gallery as he wanders around the 24 chunks of ice he has had fished out of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland, shipped to Denmark and trucked into London for Ice Watch.
Not only does the outer ring of blocks resemble a watch – a sort of countdown to environmental apocalypse – but Londoners and tourists will spend the next few days watching the artwork dematerialise before their eyes.
It is a microcosm of the effects of climate change globally. The equivalent of 10,000 of these hunks of ice is melting in Greenland – every second.
Minik Rosing, who conceived the idea with Eliasson, is famous for his research that dated the origin of life on earth to several hundred million years earlier than previously thought. The professor of geology at Copenhagen University says that the convergence of art and science is the perfect method for getting the message across.
“When you’re a young scientist, you have this hope that everybody will be extremely excited about all these nice facts you have to tell,” he says. “It turns out that people don’t care about facts. Facts are not what makes you get up in the morning. I think that we all need to have emotional inspiration to want to do something.”
The blocks were harvested only once they had already come away from the ice sheet and begun melting into the ocean. The carbon footprint of the whole project equals no more than flying a class of children from London to Greenland and back.
It has arrived in the capital just as the UN’s COP24 climate talks in Poland reach their climax. I ask Rosing how he thinks Donald Trump would respond to the artwork. He smiles.
“He would probably say: ‘Ah! These are fake icebergs.’ Which they aren’t – you couldn’t manufacture them. As you can see, they’re full of air bubbles from the atmosphere.”
That air has not been exposed for about 10,000 years. It pays testament to how we have transformed our planet – containing about half the CO2 levels found in today’s atmosphere.
For Eliasson, the magic of Ice Watch is that viewers – who can be seen caressing, kissing, scratching and even licking the ice – are physically touched by the art.
Among the first punters milling on Bankside is the model and actress Lily Cole. “It’s incredibly beautiful and at the same time quite upsetting,” she says. “Climate change is something I’m deeply, deeply concerned by, but it often feels quite abstract. I think by staging this here, it helps us to more physically and viscerally connect with the reality.”
Trevor Laycock, an educator from Sydney, Australia, who teaches preschool children about the environment, stops to investigate.
“I’m coming from a country that’s really struggling with the heat and massive issues with water shortages,” he says. “Beautiful as it is, it’s only going to be a short time before all this is gone if we don’t try to put the brakes on.”
Across the Thames, six frozen slabs are plonked in London’s financial heartland. A couple marvel at the brilliant hue emanating from what looks like a giant piece of blue kryptonite. At another, a gleeful schoolboy submerges his entire arm into a crevice. And adults take selfies through a hole that has already appeared through one of the defrosting lumps.
London’s ice caps are melting! Catch them before it’s too late.