On Ice and Art

By David Lee Astley
Ice Watch (2015), a major public art project by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, on the occasion of COP 21 – United Nations Conference on Climate Change. © 2015 Olafur Eliasson

Composed of nearly one hundred lengths of decommissioned fire hose from Chicago, Theaster Gates’ Civil Tapestry 4 is an imposing study of beige and grey interrupted by three strips of red. The title and material points the viewer to the tactics used against the activists of the Civil Rights Movement, most famously captured in photographs by Charles Moore and Bill Hudson in Birmingham, Alabama. In protests that would prove to be a turning point in the Movement, nonviolent direct-action was met with the brutal violence of the dogs and hoses of city officials. The form of Gates’ Civil Tapestry series brings to mind the works of abstract expressionists Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. Grouped under the moniker of Colour Field, these artists wanted to rid their art of rhetoric, focussing instead on the simple power of colour.

Civil Tapestry 4 can be viewed as the antithesis of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Gates inverts both colour and sentiment, reloading his abstraction with the political. He makes us question the motivation of the abstract expressionists who looked inwards whilst surrounded by the blatant inequalities of post-war America. Man, heroic and sublime. Gates makes us ask; which man?

Gates’ tapestry can be found in the new Tate Modern’s Artist and Society collection. Touching on race, class, gender, work, housing and war, the exhibition spans the 20th century to today with an amazing thematic and geographic breadth. The collection deserves celebration for its exploration of universals, underlining the importance of modern and contemporary art in stimulating and supporting discourse. However, omitted from this collection is the most pressing of social matters. Perhaps uniquely, global warming impacts, or is impacted by, every imaginable aspect of society with a ubiquity that is hard to comprehend. The closest the collection comes to environmentalism are the photos and posters of Joseph Beuys’ work. These are, however, dedicated to the struggles of a previous generation, one that was most concerned with nuclear power. We need a visionary and unapologetically pedagogic Beuys for this moment.

As the most popular modern and contemporary art gallery in the world, Tate Modern has a responsibility to assess and challenge our present reality. If it does not, it fails in its aim of “championing art and its value to society”. So why, amongst its many rooms, does the new Tate Modern not challenge us on our ever hotter reality? Artists are increasingly engaging with this challenge, so why the slow reaction from the curators? It has been nearly 25 years since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio, so tardiness and ignorance are surely unacceptable. Perhaps naïvely, I assume that BP’s donation of £224,000 a year has not had an impact. So is it the form and quality of art produced in response to global warming that has hindered its possible display?

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Global warming is difficult to materialise. Although it is universal, it is mostly intangible. In conceptualising global warming, we must rely upon certain metrics. Atmospheric carbon dioxide content, global temperature increase, glacial retreat, sea-level rise, polar ice extent. Artists have responded to each these metrics in unique manners. Let us take, for example, the rising seas. In Holoscenes, Lars Jan places performers within a plastic box which slowly fills with water. As we watch the participant go about menial tasks with increasing difficulty until impossibility, we are confronted with the inescapable and devastating presence of global warming while considering, through our gaze, the perversity of our inactions. In a number of at-risk cities, Eve S. Mosher’s HighWaterLine demarcated the projected storm surge and flooding levels. Denoting 10 feet above sea-level, her thick, chalk line snaked for 70 miles across New York, like an accumulated reimagining of Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking. As Long marked his presence without corporeal form, so Mosher’s line presents an eerie embodiment of our collective presence upon the Earth.

Ice, however, is the most potent signifier of global warming, allowing it to be most easily adapted into artistic imagery. Olafur Eliasson has made use of this familiarity in Ice Watch, which was first created in Copenhagen and then remade in Paris for COP21. Eliasson collected 12 immense ice blocks from the Nuuk Kangerlau Fjord, Greenland, transported them to Paris, and arranged in a circle, numbering his clock. Over the course of ten days, these blocks disappeared in public view, creating the purest form of what Gustav Metzger termed auto-destructive art. Developed in response to continued militarization after World War Two, Metzger hoped auto-destructive art could facilitate radical political change.

Eliasson’s arranged ice melts non-sequentially, highlighting the redundancy of the common passage of time with global warming, conveying both Auden’s “Stop all the clocks” and the Great Acceleration. Where once time and geology compressed each other, now we compress them both. As the ice drips and thaws, the dissolution of geological time becomes a public spectacle. Thousands of years of history is recorded within the ice blocks. Elizabeth Price articulated this phenomenon in her recent curation at the Whitworth by comparing icebergs to Giulio Paolini’s Nécessaire. Paolini’s sculpture is a stack of paper within a glass box: the information, pictures and narratives of these reams hidden. The layers of pollen, dust and air bubbles entombed by the ice tell the story of the Holocene; a story that is lost in days under the gaze of the Copenhagener and Parisian.

Julian Charrière has also explored this conflict between human time and geological time. In Future Fossil Spaceshe studies the contrasting scales of lithium, the element touted as key to our fossil fuel free future. Sculpting with both lithium-laden salt blocks and the saline solution that produces them, Charrière demonstrates the conflict between consumption, production and finitude of this key resource, probing us to question our resource-consumption model. For Tropisme, the artist has frozen a number of plants that originate from the Cretaceous period, the geological period dominated by dinosaurs. These plants that survived the devastation of the fifth mass extinction must now be preserved to save them from a few hundred years of human force.

In his exploration of conflicting scales, Charrière has also made use of ice. For The Blue Fossil Entropic Series, the artist mounted an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean north of Iceland and attempted to melt it. For eight hours, Charrière, armed with a gas torch, went about liquidising and vaporising the ground beneath his feet. The actions highlight the absurdity of our present time. In his attempts, the ice will refreeze, and yet, like our predicament, he continues, ignoring nature’s buffer. As Charrière increases the entropy, or disorder, of this locale (and the world, infinitesimally), so global warming propels the world into disorder and chaos of unknown dimensions. A future best described by chance: unlikely, about as likely as not, more likely than not, likely, very likely, to use the terminology of the IPCC.

Julian Charrière was once a student of Olafur Eliasson, making this thematic and material overlap unsurprising. Eliasson has worked with ice throughout his career in a variety of mediums – Ice Pavilion, The Very Large Ice Floor, Your Waste of Time, The Glacierhouse Effect…, Still River. Most consistently, ice has appeared in his ongoing project to photograph Iceland, of which The Glacier Mill Series is a component. Mills are glacial cavities which are uniquely shaped by the melt water they funnel. The mills allow the sounds of a glacier to be experienced; the movement, cracking and grinding, are transmitted by the “glacial loudspeaker”, as Eliasson puts it.

Sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard takes these sounds and forces away from the ice. Kirkegaard spent a week, with the aid of a hydrophone, recording at the depth of 20m in the Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, to create a sound installation entitled Isfald. By recording underwater, sounds up to 100km away are detectable, providing us with a stream of glacier calving. Kirkegaard combined this with high frequency recordings of individual ice chunks crackling and melting as they pass through the fjord. Isfald is presented in close to total darkness, allowing the sounds to completely envelop you. The microscale cracking and thawing is spine-tingling, lifting goose bumps, stimulating those most prehistoric of reactions. The macroscale events, the crashing ice, arrive through thunderous subwoofers, shaking the entire body like the water the ice hits. Our bodily reactions match those of the ice to global warming – as the ice disintegrates, so do we.

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These works by Olafur Eliasson, Julian Charrière and Jacob Kirkegaard can be understood as representing three modes under global warming: observing, contributing, suffering.

Under global capitalism, our every action is a contribution. Each key tap, bite and purchase. Socially, geographically and economically, vast disparities in contribution do exist. But still, it could be argued, we are all to blame. And equally, no one is to blame either. This relationship is what makes global warming unique and so difficult to avert. Our blame shifts, sliding along a scale from yourself to everyone around you to a faulty system. We are stuck between planetary and personal, systematic and individual, just as Eliasson and Charrière’s art explores the conflict of geological and human times, and Kirkegaard’s enmeshes the micro- and macroscale.

Just as we are all contributors, we shall all suffer, inescapably. However, considering the inputs and outputs of this system highlights the devastating inequalities of global warming. Those who have contributed least, that exist in the most precarious state and without the capital to control the climatic responses will be the ones to suffer most. Indeed, these effects are already being felt by the Pacific Islander whose homes can only move so far from the sea or the Bangladeshi farmer whose waters are increasingly saline or the Sahelian herder whose grasslands no longer exist. This pain will spread geographically and economically with each passing year, paying little attention to our arbitrary, catastrophic thresholds. And with it, each year shall bring ever greater shame upon the Global North.

Will this shame be translated into ever greater cries for change or will regressive tolerance consume us? For those concerned about global warming, we exist in a state of desperate optimism, ever hopeful of achieving the emancipatory changes needed to tackle global warming. These works of Eliasson, Charrière and Kirkegaard offer differing gazes upon global warming, yet each was created from and exists within this desperate optimism. Like waves upon the coast, our individual actions can shift our reality. The bigger the wave, the greater the drift of the sand, but even the smallest imparts a reaction. Will our actions, these waves, rid us of our regressive tolerance and ensure change or will it simply move the coastline around?

So how does this relate to Tate Modern? Museums and galleries often define the impact and renown of a piece. These institutions determine the size and power of a wave and its effects upon the coast. The absence of art concerned with global warming in the new Tate Modern is a serious dent to the potential impact of the visual arts in shifting or adding to the discourse of climate change in UK and beyond. At the start of this article, I suggested that this absence could be the result of the art produced in reaction to global warming not being of the quality or form to be shown in the Tate Modern. In my discussion of these works by Eliasson, Charrière and Kirkegaard, I hope to have shown this not to be true. Taking one material, exploring its processes and associations, these works challenge us, offering insight into the relationship that we all share with global warming and demonstrate how art can be heroic and sublime.

When we look at that picture of the abstract expressionists, it feels unsurprising that these artists did not seek to visualise the civil inequalities in the USA. Looking at the art world today, one that is increasingly dominated by the money of a few, it feels similarly unsurprising that global warming isn’t being engaged at its most popular contemporary gallery. However, this disappointing reaction cannot solely be shouldered by the institutions of contemporary art. As across all cultural fields, the majority of our most prominent artists shy away from the subject, reducing the pressure of galleries to react also. Why?

As noted above, the effects of global warming will not be felt equally, and the visual arts are not dominated by those who will be subject to its worst effects. Perhaps global warming is not of great enough importance to draw these artists’ attention? Of course, this is not to call for the regulation of art; instead, these are questions of bewilderment. With artists choosing to disengage from global warming, and art from the most affected communities hindered by structural barriers, those that are engaged and have access to the gallery, like the artists noted in this piece, need urgent championing. In doing so, one can hope that new channels will be opened for those most affected to express themselves to as wide an audience as possible, ensuring their voices are not hidden in the Global North.

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In Civil Tapestry 4, Theaster Gates asks us to examine the inaction of the most prominent visual artists during the Civil Rights era. Yet those protesters still won, bringing an unimaginable change. Gates’ piece can be understood as a warning against the social negligence of art. But, so far, such a warming has not been heeded. The new Tate Modern may hang this warning, but it should be challenging every viewer on this most worrying and universal of crisis with that universal language of art, ensuring that it makes each wave as large and powerful as possible.


David Lee Astley serves as Associate within the Natural Environment Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford, where he read Earth Science. At university, his academic focus was on climatology, past and present, but he is now concentrating on contemporary climate change. He is especially interested in the interactions that global warming produces between the climate system, environment and societies around the world. David also has a keen interest in politics and culture, especially film, visual art and literature, and is fascinated by artists’ reactions to global warming. The importance of the Polar Regions in both the climate system and how we understand global warming is what encourages his work for Polar Research and Policy Initiative.
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