PARIS — In the aftermath of November’s terrorist attacks and the ruling Socialist Party’s meltdown following a strong first-round showing for Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National party, I glummly went to the Place du Panthéon to see Ice Watch Paris, an exhibition of melting icebergs by Danish relational artist Olafur Eliasson. The project, which is theatrically lit at night to good effect, is underwritten by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Eliasson is known for recreating natural phenomena through artificial means, like “Beauty” (1993), a wall of mist that made indoor rainbows. But for this project he worked in collaboration with geologist 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 ago — to drag to harbor from the Davis Strait 12 immense iceberg chunks, lift them up by heavy cranes to place them in storage in large icehouses, transfer them by cargo ship in six refrigerated containers from Nuuk, Greenland, to Aalborg, Denmark, and then take them on a 10-hour truck ride to Paris, so that passersby may stand with them and watch them melt to nothing.
The installation is tied to COP 21, the United Nations conference on climate change, and can be easily placed in the category of art made in wake of the Anthropocene. Eliasson’s exhibition is a giant sundial installation with a circumference of 20 meters (65.6 feet) and consists of ‘lost’ chunks of Greenland ice made of compressed snow, which have been ‘harvested’ from the sea — to use the official exhibition terminology — a sea which is losing the equivalent of 1,000 such blocks of ice per second. This free public exhibition opened last week and is already half gone. It will remain ‘up’ until it melts away.
Though timely and quite beautiful, with sun-carved forms reminiscent of Henry Moore sculptures emerging — forms that, when it’s sunny, contain marvelously luminous surface details — this work is nothing new. The process art movement of the 1970s and the Environmental Art movement are directly related, especially Puerto Rico-born artist Rafael Ferrer’s process-oriented “50 Cakes of Ice” (1970), which melted in the Museum of Modern Art’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden as part of the exhibition Information. So Ice Watch Paris slides smoothly into what Simon Critchley described in 2010 as contemporary art’s dominant trend: the inauthenticity of mannerist situations of reenactment. In 2012 Critchley went on to describe this circumstance further, as the “taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world.”
Eliasson’s exhibition also slides smoothly into what Chris Hedges describes as the record of lofty rhetoric and ineffectual cosmetic reforms typical of climate summits. As Hedges wrote:
Since the first summit more than 20 years ago, carbon dioxide emissions have soared. Placing faith in our political and economic elites, who have mastered the arts of duplicity and propaganda on behalf of corporate power, is the triumph of hope over experience. There are only a few ways left to deal honestly with climate change: sustained civil disobedience that disrupts the machinery of exploitation; preparing for the inevitable dislocations and catastrophes that will come from irreversible rising temperatures; and cutting our personal carbon footprints, which means drastically reducing our consumption, particularly of animal products.
That reduction of consumption may have to include exorbitant works of art, like Ice Watch Paris.
As outlined in the project’s Executive Summary, the carbon footprint resulting from Ice Watch Paris is 30 metric tons (~33 US tons) of carbon dioxyde. The transportation of the 12 blocks of ice, weighing a total of 80 metric tons (~88 US tons), from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord outside Nuuk to Paris accounts for the 93% of the project’s emissions, or 28.03 metric tons (~30.9 US tons). The exhibition itself is generating just 2% of the project’s total emissions, or 0.45 metric tons (~.5 US tons). The remaining 5%, or 1.53 metric tons (~1.7 US tons), are from the travel undertaken by the team from Olafur Eliasson Studios and sponsor Julie’s Bicycle (a London-based global charity) to Paris for the exhibition. But this is not the first footprint put down in the project’s name; Ice Watch was first executed in Copenhagen in 2014 while the IPCC climate report was being written.
In process art, as in the Arte Povera movement, nature itself is lauded as art and the symbolization and representation of nature is often rejected. The realization of an immense sundial formation of 80 tons of ice left to melt on the Place du Panthéon in order to sensitize us to the larger issue of climate change may itself be a sign of what is going wrong: scale. Sounding very much like the utopian impulse behind Tomás Saraceno’s mega installation Aerocene: Around the World to Change the World at the Grand Palais, Eliasson says of Ice Watch Paris: “Art has the ability to change our perceptions and perspectives on the world and Ice Watch makes the climate challenges we are facing tangible. I hope it will inspire shared commitment to taking climate action.” Inspire whom, I might ask? As Hedges points out, “The global elites have no intention of interfering with the profits, or ending government subsidies, for the fossil fuel industry and the extraction industries. They will not curtail extraction or impose hefty carbon taxes to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They will not limit the overconsumption that is the engine of global capitalism.”
In light of the past-the-tipping-point era in which we live, Eliasson’s romantic and hopeful vision is something visually beautiful that may make his work seem wonderful today. But in the hot, dystopian future it may mark him as one of the most wasteful mega-artists of our times.
Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch Paris will remain on view in the Place du Panthéon (5th arrondissement, Paris) through December 11, unless it melts away before then.