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Was Olafur Eliasson Bringing 30 Icebergs to London a Sustainability Own Goal?

Criticisms of impact are missing the project’s power to change behaviour, argues collaborator and geologist Minik Rosing

Does it vex you, the environmental impact of Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch? Do you hear about the transportation of 30 icebergs from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to be displayed in London as a memento mori for our inhabitable environment and judge the project a bit of an own-goal, sustainability-wise? You would not be alone – on personal evidence, this seems a popular response.

Minik Rosing, Professor of Geology at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, is a regular sounding board for Eliasson on matters environmental. He’s credited as co-author of Ice Watch and suggests that such gripes illustrate a failure to grasp the sheer scale of the issue. ‘An iceberg like that? Greenland loses 10,000 every second so you can take 30 of them: it’s not going to change anything,’ he says. ‘Or hopefully it is going to change something: an awareness of what is happening, so maybe we’ll make changes in our behaviour.’

Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch, 2018, installation view, Bankside, London. Courtesy: the artist

Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2018, installation view, Bankside, London. Courtesy: the artist

Shed by glaciers, and plopped into the sea, it is the meltwater from such icebergs raising the world’s oceans. Whether it does so through the sewers of London or a Greenland fjord makes little odds. The carbon footprint of Ice Watch has been monitored by the environmental NGO Julie’s Bicycle: Eliasson says it’s roughly that of a London school class taking a trip to Greenland.

Unlike the stately slipping away of Anya Gallacio’s intensities and surfaces (1996) – a staunch ice block nursing a core of rock salt, installed in a 19th century water station in East London which yielded over three spring months – Ice Watch is disappearing fast. Of those six stationed between the glass and concrete cliffs of London’s financial district one berg had already split by the end of the press launch. The rest were slick and perspiring, their drips uniting in a thin stream that descended the gutter outside St Stephen Walbrook (a church with a branch of Starbucks attached: our addiction to consuming products in disposable packaging extending apparently, to the saintliest locales.)

As with intensities and surfaces, what we’re invited to admire in Ice Watch is the mysterious action of natural forces. Each berg has a distinct form, variations in texture and opacity. Made from 10,000 year-old snowfall compacted over time by cumulative weight, the bergs are white with air trapped within from where it settled between snowflakes. The clear streaks of ice striping some bergs are evidence of temperature fluctuation: ice melting, the water pouring into a crack and then freezing again.

Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2018, installation view, Bankside, London. Courtesy: the artist

‘Each of these icebergs will have a different history, a different age, a different memory about what has happened at the time when they formed, because of the air bubbles inside,’ says Rosing. ‘From the air bubbles we can know what the atmosphere was like, we can tell what the temperature was at that time. From the bubbles we can identify which part of the atmosphere we have today is from fossil fuel, because carbons in fossil fuels have a different isotopic composition than carbon out of a volcano so we can see that the isotopic composition of the bubbles is different from the isotopic composition of the air.’ The disgusting conclusion?  ‘We can say that half of the carbon dioxide that we’re breathing came out of an engine.’

This is not the first edition of Ice Watch – in previous years, bergs have melted in the streets of Paris and Copenhagen – nor is it the first time that Eliasson and Rosing have presented a worked together. In 2016 their Glacial rock flour garden was shown as part of Eliasson’s exhibition at Versailles. Clay-like rock dust filled the basin of a pond surrounding a statue of Pluto abducting Persephone. As a symbol, the goddess of fertility was apt: it is the rich mineral content of the ‘rock flour’ that interests Rosing.

Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2018, installation view, Bankside, London. Courtesy: the artist

‘As the ice is melting, the meltwater flushes out a lot of very fine-grained rock flour that the ice has separated from the substrate. Many problems in tropical and subtropical parts of the world have to do with poor soil quality. Ice mechanically turns the rocks into fine powder which contains all the minerals that things need to grow – so we are trying to see if we can take the rock dust from Greenland to the tropics and refertilize the soil, and that will both help food security, but also takes carbon out of the atmosphere as things grow,’ explains Rosing. ‘In the midst of all this impending disaster we also have to look at how we can mitigate some of these things. And if there’s something positive deriving from some of this you have to exploit it.’

For Rosing, working with Eliasson brings a different perspective – the eye of an artist alongside the eye of a scientist – and above all, an appeal to the emotions. Years spent in education, he says, have shown him that you can’t teach people anything: all you can do is inspire them to want to learn. For Rosing, the key to Ice Watch is its spectacle: the beauty of the bergs. He wants people to admire them, to listen to the popping of the air bubbles, to stroke their smooth surfaces and wonder what strange forces formed them. And to watch how fast they melt, and realise how fragile they are. ‘Art can inspire someone to want to do something,’ he says. ‘But science can tell them what to do and how to do it.’

Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing’s Ice Watch, is installed on Bankside outside Tate Modern, and in the City of London outside Bloomberg’s European headquarters until 21 December, or until the ice has melted.

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.

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