‘From Thinking to Doing’: Olafur Eliasson on Art and Action

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is known for large sculptures, paintings, photography, and films that frequently tackle the urgent problems of environmental sustainability and climate change and aim to inspire viewers to act rather than simply observe.

Eliasson describes Waterfalls, which was installed around New York City in 2008. 
 (Credit: Elza Bouhassira)

Eliasson, speaking Sept. 26 at Columbia University, described several of the projects he has created over the course of his career.  In his 1993 exhibit “Beauty,” he created a curtain of mist using a punctured hose that shifted depending on the viewer’s perspective. From some angles, a rainbow appeared, and the water seemed to flow more or less intensely depending on distance. In “Waterfalls,” four 30- to 40-meter-tall waterfalls poured down from temporarily installed scaffolding and into New York’s East River. In the “Little Sun” initiative, aimed at promoting solar energy in areas without access to electricity, bright yellow, sun-shaped, and portable solar lamps were designed. Over 800,000 lamps have been distributed since its launch in 2012. 

Icewatch,” a public installation which has had three iterations, was first displayed in Copenhagen in 2014 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  published its Fifth Assessment Report. The second installation occurred in Paris during the UN’s 2015 Paris climate change negotiations. The most recent iteration was in 2018 in London outside of the Tate Modern and in front of Bloomberg’s European headquarters.

Eliasson describes “Icewatch,” which was first displayed in Copenhagen in 2014. 
 (Credit: Elza Bouhassira)

Eliasson said the strength of “Icewatch” comes from its physical presence. Visitors to it could see tiny air bubbles in the ice, which would pop as the ice melted. Projects like “Icewatch” bring sound, smell, and touch to a viewer and, thus, can prompt people to shift from thinking to doing, Eliasson argued.

In his 2014 exhibition “Riverbed,” Eliasson filled a wing of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark with rocks and sediment, which was meant to convey how a dry riverbed looks after a glacier has melted. Eliasson described the experience of hiking in such a riverbed, saying that hikers can feel “the void of water that has been” and “the presence of the absence of water” when trekking through an empty riverbed.  

Yet another project Eliasson discussed was the photo series “Glacier Series,” which he created in 1999. He photographed glaciers from the sky to give viewers a sense of their immense size. Eliasson is updating the series by including photographs of the same glaciers, but shot in 2018, almost twenty years after the originals, in order to show the changes that have taken place. 

Eliasson displays images of a glacier seen in 1999 (left) and in 2018 (right).
(Credit: Elza Bouhassira)

Nature, according to Eliasson, is a cultural construct. The idea that nature and culture are inseparable is widely accepted, he said. But, he recalled, not too long ago, nature was seen as separate from culture.

Eliasson’s lecture was part of the Year of Water, an academic year of events at Columbia spearheaded by the School of the Arts aimed at bringing attention to the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental issues surrounding water. 

When asked about the frustration and anger that feed new movements like the global, youth-led climate strikes, Eliasson said that the kind of rage they are channeling is powerful, but that he believes in the importance of optimism. “To actually feel empowered, to become a change agent, a change stakeholder, we have to have an element of positivity,” he said. “I just do think that hope has a greater impact if there is this notion that tomorrow is going to be better.”

Read more on GlacierHub:

Roundup: Ice911, Glacier Tourism in New Zealand, and Ice Stupas

Pakistan Could Be Left High and Dry Even If Nations Achieve Paris Climate Targets

Antarctic Fungi Provides a Window into the Past and Future

Roundup: Switzerland’s Aletsch Glacier, Olafur Eliasson, and Early Alpine Dwellers

Dire projections for Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier

From the Journal of Glaciology:

“We model the future evolution of the largest glacier of the European Alps – Great Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland – during the 21st century. For that purpose we use a detailed three-dimensional model, which combines full Stokes ice dynamics and surface mass balance forced with the most recent climate projections (CH2018), as well as with climate data of the last decades. As a result, all CH2018 climate scenarios yield a major glacier retreat: Results range from a loss of 60% of today’s ice volume by 2100 for a moderate CO2 emission scenario (RCP2.6) being in line with the Paris agreement to an almost complete wastage of the ice for the most extreme emission scenario (RCP8.5). Our model results also provide evidence that half of the mass loss is already committed under the climate conditions of the last decade.”

Read more here.

View of the Great Aletsch Glacier from Moosfluh, above Bettmeralp (Source: Matthias Huss / ETH Zürich)

Olafur Eliasson event at Columbia University

From Columbia University:

“Renowned Danish-Icelandic visual artist Olafur Eliasson’s large-scale works such as Ice Watch and New York City Waterfalls spark critical dialogue about climate change and our relationship to nature. His work is driven by interests in perception, movement, embodied experience, and feelings of self, engaging the broader public sphere through architectural projects, interventions in civic space, arts education, policy-making, and issues of sustainability.”

Eliasson will speak at Columbia University on September 26, 2019, 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM as part of its Year of Water program. Details about the Eliasson event can be found here.

Early, high-elevation humans lived near glaciers

From Science:

“Studies of early human settlement in alpine environments provide insights into human physiological, genetic, and cultural adaptation potentials. Although Late and even Middle Pleistocene human presence has been recently documented on the Tibetan Plateau, little is known regarding the nature and context of early persistent human settlement in high elevations. Here, we report the earliest evidence of a prehistoric high-altitude residential site. Located in Africa’s largest alpine ecosystem, the repeated occupation of Fincha Habera rock shelter is dated to 47 to 31 thousand years ago. The available resources in cold and glaciated environments included the exploitation of an endemic rodent as a key food source, and this played a pivotal role in facilitating the occupation of this site by Late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.”

Read more here.

Researchers examine a glacier erratic from an ancient, retreating glacier in Ethiopia. (Source: H. Viet)

Read more on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Images From Huascaran Research Expedition

Observing Flora Near a Famous Norwegian Glacier

Annual Assessment of North Cascades Glaciers Finds ‘Shocking Loss’ of Volume

Photo Friday: Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Art Installation in London

Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson placed twenty-four blocks of glacier ice outside of the Tate Modern in London. He placed another six blocks outside the European headquarters of Bloomberg, also in London.

The installations, unveiled in December, are part of a series called Ice Watch, which Eliasson began in Copenhagen in 2014 at the release of IPCC’s fifth comprehensive report on the state of the world’s climate. He’s since continued his ice exhibitions outside of the Paris climate talks in 2015 and the most recent negotiations in Katowice, Poland.

Eliasson says the goal of the installations is to create a public dialogue about climate change.

Opening of Olafur Eliasson’s new piece ICE WATCH at Tate Modern, London.(source: Studio Olafur Eliasson)

The blocks of ice, now melted, are detached icebergs that were once part of Greenland’s Nuuk Glacier.

Greenland’s ice sheets are shrinking rapidly due to global warming. They’ve lost an average of 280 gigatons of ice per year between 2002 to 2016, according to NASA satellite data, contributing 0.03 inches per year to global sea level rise.

Icebergs floating in Greenland. (Source: Studio Olafur Eliasson)

Eliasson hopes the installations allow people to understand climate change as a tangible event rather than an abstraction.

A toddler gets interactive with Eliasson’s Ice Watch installation. (Source: Studio Olafur Eliasson)

A visitor reacts to Eliasson’s installation. (Source: Studio Olafur Eliasson)

Visitor response has varied.

Instagram user Stuffbycookie commented: “It wasn’t teleported there! It was transported by fossil fuel away from where it is needed most!! All in the name of Art?!”

Another Instagram user said: “This exhibit is a good conversation starter and an obvious counter to science deniers. It might even change the mind. I think the Smithsonian would be a good place.”

Workers loading an iceberg into a shipping container. (Source: Studio Olafur Eliasson)

Read more about the art and climate change on GlacierHub:

Artist Diane Burko Shows Us Our World, and It’s Vanishing

OMG: An Artist Flew Over the Greenland Icesheet

Listening to Glaciers Artfully

Scaling Quelccaya: Depicting Climate Change Through Art

Photo Friday: Designing an Art Park for a Greenland Fjord

Talented artists and architects competed for the honor of designing the new Icefjord Centre in Ilulissat, Greenland.   The Danish architectural group Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter  presented an elegantly curving building design which won the competition.  However, another one of the finalists, the entry by Studio Other Spaces, founded by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann, was nothing short of spectacular itself.


Town of Ilulissat, Greenland (Source: Flickr.com)


Studio Other Spaces says, “The Ilulissat Icefjord Park uses the melting of ice to shape space. Studio Other Spaces has created a unique design strategy where ice is at once the formwork of a concrete structure and the focal point of the resulting space. For the Ilulissat Icefjord Park, Studio Other Spaces uses naturally calved icebergs harvested directly from the nearby ice fjord to create an exhibition building, called the Ice Void, which harbours in its walls the memory of the ice that was used to shape it. Together with the Ice Void, and linked to it outdoors by a 360-degree path, the Sun Cone building defines the Icefjord Park. The light glass structure of the Sun Cone positions the visitor centre directly in the landscape and offers guests a spectacular panoramic view of the surroundings and the Arctic sun. The park helps make the overwhelming experience of visiting the ice fjord comprehensible – providing visitors with a scale for contemplating and relating to the awe-inspiring ice fjord.”


The proposed design inhabits the landscape in the form of a park. (Source: Studio Other Spaces)


Inside the ice. (Source: Studio Other Spaces)


In 2004, 4000 square kilometers of the Ilulissat Icefjord was declared a Word Heritage site because of its unique geology and natural beauty.

Inside the Ice Void. (Source: Studio Other Spaces)

Interior of proposed Sun Cone building. (Source: Studio Other Spaces)

Photo Friday: Ice Watch at Place du Panthéon, Paris for COP21

The Ice Watch is an artwork by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing on the occasion of COP21 – the meeting of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. There are twelve immense blocks of ice, harvested from free-floating icebergs in a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland, arranged in clock formation on the Place du Panthéon, where they are melting away during COP21. People from all over the world are obsessed with and in awe of this Ice Watch Paris public artwork. The blocks of ice included in Ice Watch each weigh about 10 tons, transported from Greenland to the Place du Panthéon for COP21. This artwork is a compass for people to learn about water, glacial ice and the oceans that receive the water of melting icebergs. And it shows how little time remains to address climate change.

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