olafur eliasson believes art can change the world

Olafur Eliasson is famous for his huge installations; from his turbine hall Weather Project, to building waterfalls in New York City harbour, but for his latest work he transported 100 tons of 4,000-year-old ice ice in 12 blocks from a glacier in...

by Felix Petty
11 November 2014, 4:10pm

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is obsessed with landscapes and environments, his work relentlessly charts the impact and relationship between humans and the world they live in. One of his most famous artworks, The Weather Project, turned the Tate's Turbine Hall into a landscape of sun and mist, where lighting stripped colour out of the environment, creating a world of black shadows and orange sunlight. Or Green River, a comment on water pollution, where he dyed rivers greenas far afield as Berlin, Stockholm and Tokyo, without notice, surprising the residents.

He famously created four waterfalls across New York City in 2008, one of the most expensive pieces of public art ever, transforming the urban waterfront landscape of New York. His work has combined the overtly Political, with the small 'p' political that sees wonder in the way human's interact with each other, and can be changed by a work of art. "Feelings are facts," he says mid-way through our conversation, quoting the dancer Yvonne Rainer, and his work almost has something of the transience of movement to it; it's massive, spectacular and emotive but almost always temporary and destined to disappear. His latest project, Ice Watch, is no different. Olafur planted 100 tons of Greenlandic ice in Copenhagen's City Hall Square, and left it to melt over four days last week whilst citizens of Copenhagen hugged, licked and embraced the sculpture. 100 tons of ice, incidentally, is melting every second in Greenland, making visible the abstract notion of how climate change is affecting the world we live in.

"I'm generally interested in our how our thoughts and ideas about ourselves match up with how we act." Olafur explains, from his home in Denmark. "I think that is a topic that is really interesting, because it is to do with the general feeling about being disconnected and disempowered from your own life, how you can feel and see all the challenges we are facing, but to a great extent you feel that what you do doesn't matter." Ice Watch is an impassioned call to "act now" in a cynical world, to engage with our problems before it's to late.  

"I think art can effect how we think about everything," he continues, "art is not a solitary, autonomous statement though, it is part of a discussion on climate change that is very academic, so there is a need to translate theory into action, but I think art can be a contributor to touching people in more profound, psychological ways."

The project started with Olafur and his colleague, the geologist Minik Rosing, calling up Kuupik Kleist, former Prime Minister of Greenland, to try and work out a way they could get their hands on such a large amount of ice that was floating off the coast of Nuuk in Greeland, and get it to Denmark.

"I first told him that I think the ice, broken off from the glaciers and floating in the sea, is just such an amazingly beautiful sculptural object, and I told him that I want to bring it to the City Hall Square in Copenhagen and show it to everyone," Olafur explains, laughing, "he agreed to help, and we had to go into the sea in a tug boat and a dinghy and pull the ice to shore, and using a shipping crane we managed to get it into a container, where we cut it into pieces and began to transport it Copenhagen."

If anything though, Ice Watch is as much about the way people interact with each other as it is about how people interact with the idea of climate change. Olafur describes the ice as having "the quality of a campfire or Stonehenge," arranged in a circle in the square, and its true, ice and rock share a primitive relationship to the earth, and like Stonehenge the ice has an out-of-placeness in the landscape and displays an obsession with marking out the path of time through our landscape. All of this Olafur exploits to make the project into something more interesting and visually arresting than simply a political act of public sculpture. 

"It was also about showing that public space is for public activity," Olafur states, "in a way it was a parliament on the street that emphasised the quality of a bottom up approach. The ice only exists for a little while before becoming water, which is how I think democracies should be, they should reinvent themselves all the time."

"It is like The Weather Project,"he continues when asked to describe the relationship between two installations,"where being in the Turbine Hall was about sharing and experiencing. I would like to think this sharing in Ice Watch, the fact that there were so many people there together, amplified the quality of the experience. They both ask what it means to be interdependent and share something without necessarily having to agree, it's a space that doesn't actually make decisions at the expense of someone else, and it works on the behalf of people disagreeing. I would like this work as being about inclusion."



Text Felix Petty
Photography Anders Sune Berg and Group Greeland, courtesy Olafur Eliasson

climate change
Olafur Eliasson
Ice Watch
Minik Rosing
kuupik kleist