Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson

Ice Watch, 2014, 12 blocks of glacial ice, Installation view: Place du Panthéon, Paris, 2015, variable, © 2014 Olafur Eliasson, Photo: Martin Argyroglo, Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

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Melting Before Our Eyes

Commentary by

Twelve blocks of arctic ice ranged in a circle like giant opalescent gems studding the face of a giant clock or watch appear overnight in the centre of European cities. 

The artist, Olafur Eliasson, observed the reaction of passers-by to these unexpected visitors. Initially puzzled or confused—perhaps intimidated—most people were drawn towards the gleaming slabs. First, a tentative touch would cause them to flinch as though they had touched a hot stove; the first shock was just how painfully cold the ice was. Getting closer, some placed an ear to the ice, close enough to hear a gentle fizzing sound.

The ice slabs were in fact blocks of frozen glacial snow compacted over millennia, and that sound was pressure bursting millions of tiny bubbles within, releasing air that had been preserved for 15,000 years. This air, some visitors discovered, had a particular scent. The blocks were tasted too, children and adults compelled to lick the glassy surfaces. Some people, once fully-acquainted with these alien visitors to the metropolis, wrapped their arms around them, a gesture perhaps expressing love, gratitude, or even grief, and one which, as the warmth of the body met the icy block, would cause it to melt more rapidly than before.

Like John Ruskin, whose work is elsewhere in this exhibition, Eliasson is encouraging a direct personal engagement with nature—including (from his twenty-first-century perspective) its decline.

Climate change and its impact on the arctic ice sheets is well-known but largely abstract to most people. The knowledge that Eliasson was attempting to develop with this installation was relational and experiential, not intellectual. Experiential knowledge, like that Hosea is encouraging the Israelites to acknowledge, is, according to the behavioural scientists with whom Eliasson collaborated, essential to provoking action, which is by turn essential for reducing the impact of climate change. The action called for by Hosea and Eliasson in their respective contexts requires a turn away from the perilous enticements of contemporary life.

For Hosea, such enticements alienate us from God. In Eliasson’s work one might see God present within the ice—its ancient air and water symbolising eternity—yet this ice is visibly melting before our eyes.

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