Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’ in London, 2018. The Dialectic between Climate Change and the Embodied Anthropos, an “Emotional Affair”

Thursday, October 8th, 2020 | Allgemein

Photo by Pavel Brodsky on Unsplash licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Costina Mocanu

1. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic[1]

On December 11, 2018, the Icelandic-Danish and environmentally-conscious artist Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) exhibited his ‘Ice Watch’, an installation of melting glacier ice, for the third time, thus illustrating the effects of human activity on Earth in the current geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. Intertwining appealing aesthetics with a message of climate change awareness and by challenging the (educated) viewer-cum- participant to actively engage both on the visual and intellectual level, Eliasson intends to reaffirm the well-known relentless impact of Anthropos on the planet. However, despite the ecological issue which is reinforced by explanatory panels, the installation appeared as a taciturn, yet spectacular image that attracted a diverse spectrum of viewers, rather than visualizing a complex discourse on eco-friendly alternatives stemming from the physical encounter with the millennial displaced chunks of ice. Thus, from a theoretical point of view and in line with Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” (1967), one can easily state that ‘Ice Watch’ appears as a spectacle consumed by the viewers crossing the public spaces of the Tate London Museum and Bloomberg headquarters. Furthermore, while being made from ephemeral material, ‘Ice Watch’ is further perpetuated through images of it circulating on social media such as Twitter and Instagram under the hashtag #IceWatchLondon.

After choosing two wealthy European capitals, Copenhagen and Paris, for his installation, this time Eliasson opted for the most cosmopolitan and urban Western centre of global financial and commercial activities, London. There the work was on display until December 21, 2018, before the eventually remaining chunks of ice were touring in schools and cultural centres. The installation offered a visual as well as haptic response to the 24th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Poland between December 2 and 15, 2018, which concerned the progress of the Paris Agreement 2016 as well as the results obtained by the World Meteorological Organization on the atmospheric carbon dioxide level equivalent to the 405 parts per million. The outcome of the conference highlighted the importance of targeting a limit of temperature increase of 1.5 °C rather than 2 °C through a strict emission reduction. [2] As an artist, Eliasson made the well-known scientific numbers, facts, and calls to action tangible in a spectacular Weltanschauung, while at the same time presenting a fragile installation which openly called for actively engaged spectators/ participants. He installed blocks of floating ice that broke off from the glacier due to the increase of global temperatures in front of the industrial architecture of the Tate Modern Museum and the Bloomberg headquarters’ futuristic design, inviting the viewers to literally interact with ‘Ice Watch.’

At first glance, he realised a critical artwork which urges the viewer, as part of a collective, to act more sustainably and to adopt an environmentally-conscious behaviour in the future. However, upon examining the installation further, one realises the reduced aesthetic potential of a memorable, yet ephemeral experience of seeing and touching millennia-old chunks of ice melting in an urban setting. Conceived with the Greenland geologist Minik Rosing (b. 1957), Eliasson debuted this installation art [3] already in 2014 at the City Hall Square in Copenhagen, Denmark, during the 5th Assessment Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and re-staged it the following year at the Parisian Place du Panthéon, France, during the COP21 international agreement. [4] Hence, a total amount of thirty endangered gargantuan icebergs weighing between 1,5 tons and 6 tons were taken out of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord of Southwest Greenland, drawing attention to one of the most drastic consequences of global warming in the 21st century: the melting of millennia-old chunks of snow frozen before the Earth’s atmosphere was polluted by humanity. To assert that ongoing actions are urgently needed, Eliasson implemented this visual metaphor in public space by arranging blocks of ice, which he gathered from the Greenlandic fjords, into a circular formation reminiscent of the dial of a clock. In this way, the artist chronicled non-human suffering (ice) because of humankind’s (Anthropos) irresponsible actions through a tangible installation of (natural) ice. His aim was to present the melting resources as a global and collective matter, or more precisely, to represent a multiple imprint of the known through a spectacular installation that would attract the attention of the masses through a call for collective sensory perception.

For this reason, the artist took the ephemerality of millennia-old, pure ice not only as an occasion to sharpen awareness of the imminent danger of its melting, but also to point out the intersection between man and history, thus promoting care through artistic endeavour. Besides the mere visual contemplation, the large ‘Ice Watch’ installation enables the viewer/ citizen to actively participate in it, thus allowing for a direct experience of the ice melting (see Chapter 2). These thousands of years old, free-floating glacial icebergs were conceived as messengers of political significance and extraordinary, ancient beauty, offering the public the possibility of a tangible encounter with the consequences of their anthropocentric actions: When they touched the ice, it began to melt due to their body temperature, thus ultimately contributing to what the rising temperature of the climate has already caused. Since 2015, the melting ice of Greenland has raised the sea-level by 2.5 millimetres, [5] a number which might seem insignificant, but has the great potential of reaching the same. Just as the Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment said, “What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic,” when warning that by the late 2030s ice will not exist anymore as an integral part of the polar ice caps. Rather than recounting the repetitive vague statistics disseminated by the mass media, Eliasson acted as a mediator between the inaccessible melting Arctic, which remains out of reach even for wealthy people in Europe, and the realm of everyday life in hectic urban environments, which – in the case of London – count a large number of travellers, including tourists, commuters or business people.

The blocks of ice have been shipped from Greenland to the British Immingham port via Denmark in nine refrigerator trucks [6] and were subsequently transported to London. The carbon footprint caused by this transportation over a distance of 3.300 kilometres was calculated by Julie’s Bicycle non-profit organization to find more sustainable solutions of transportation and action. When answering the question why such a costly endeavour was realised despite the ice was already melting, Eliasson and Rosing argued that they calculated the energy invested in bringing each of the blocks to London as corresponding to the airline emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) a flight of only one person flying to the Arctic and back to witness the ice melting. [7] In other words, Eliasson stressed the influence that each person has when travelling from one side of the world to the other, including a direct link to mass tourism. A remarkable aspect of this easily accessible installation is its emancipating function as a tool for negotiating and re-evaluating the environment, whether it be natural or artificial. The moment when the Anthropos enters the installation and connects to the natural ice chunks, he/ she becomes himself/ herself the source of the artwork [8] and, thanks to the corporal experience, has the chance to reflect on society’s consumption. Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’ bridges both worlds by inviting the viewer-cum-participant to visually and intellectually engage with the environmental installation in an earth-shattering encounter and experimental setting.

2. ‘Ice Watch’ as an “Emotional Affair [9]

Eliasson’s 2018 version of the ‘Ice Watch’ is larger than the previous versions in terms of the scale of the glacial chunks displayed on public view; while he kept the concept of displaying the ice in central and densely populated Western urban settings, here, in the proximity of the industrial companies and commercially used skyscrapers on the shores of the Thames, he chose more than the double amount of ice blocks in comparison with the previous versions of Copenhagen and Paris (twelve chucks each). Starting precisely with its location, the work is twofold: it firstly mirrors the contrast between the urban setting of human beings and the purity of natural elements, thus addressing the issues of anthropocentric activity; secondly, it creates a tangible metaphor between two different components of nature: the ice suffering because of the Anthropos. Intriguingly, the installation focuses on the polysemic term ‘watch.’ On the one side, to ‘watch out’ is about timing and acting in time in more sustainable and ethical ways, paying attention to the ecological aspects of alimentation, transportation, and consumption. On the other side, the verb invites the viewers to observe the installation by requesting them to take time to explore it, enter its space, move through it, becoming themselves part of the exhibition’s rhetoric, and, above all, to focus on watching its ephemerality.

‘Ice Watch’ can be defined as a work of installation art, [10] a genre including processual aspects and an object-spectator-relationship that goes beyond the conventional role of the spectator as a mere onlooker. The crucial difference and characteristics of installation lie in the way in which the viewers can either limit themselves to the static act of observing the work from a specific distance, enhancing an intellectual engagement [11] or to become central and active participants of the installation itself. In the latter case, the viewer-cum-participant experiences not only the fragility of the ice blocks through the five senses, but also the interdependencies between humans and non-human elements as being as both parts of nature, as well as envisioning modalities of (personal) action on a social scale, thus challenging the limits of different agencies. Hence, Eliasson breaks with the traditional triangular relation of “artist-work-of-art-viewer,” [12] in favour of sensory propinquity, physical emancipating participation, as well as an increase of awareness. The viewer-cum-participant becomes an embodied viewer [13] of the installation and can freely encircle the ice, embrace it, lick it, hear the fizzing bubbles of air, smell it. The primacy of the viewers’ bodies and their experience designate Eliasson’s working at the interstices between the tangible action and the logic of understanding and knowledge-creation concerning anthropocentric action. Thus, the experience of reality yields both physical and psychological levels in a dynamic relation between the perceived and the perceiving. As previously mentioned, Eliasson encourages the viewers to engage with corporeality:

“Put your hand on the ice, listen to it, smell it, look at it – and witness the ecological changes our world is undergoing [14]

“The blocks of ice await your arrival. Put your hand on the ice, listen to it, smell it, look at it – and witness the ecological changes our world is undergoing. Feelings of distance and disconnect hold us back, makes us grow numb and passive. I hope that Ice-Watch arouses feelings of proximity, presence, and relevance, of narratives that you can identify with and that make us all engage. We must recognize that together we have the power to take individual actions and to push for systematic change. Come touch the Greenland ice sheet and be touched by it. Let’s transform climate knowledge into climate action.” [15]

Yet, although the ideal viewer is triggered by the lasting affective and intellectual engagement, the embodied viewer’s contact with the ice can lead to an instinctive (re)action that bears the risk of experiencing the installation merely as an attractive form of entertainment. Even though the informative panels displayed around the installation report data and facts, it should be recognized that the tangible encounter with ‘Ice Watch’ neither offers (political) solutions for climate change, nor urges the responsible to establish green capitalism and to actively contribute to an ecological discourse. Even when one considers both, the fact that the installation is accessible to everybody and the heterogeneous and international audience participating and embracing the ice chunks – the viewers as also the users of the installation [16] -, ‘Ice Watch’ is not to be confused with a democratic process. In relation to the artist, the embodied viewer does not have a voice in conceptually shaping the project when compared with the authorial power of Eliasson. What is evident though, is that the human imprint on the surface of the ice ultimately melts down the artwork, an action gradually revealing and realizing the artist’s and geologist’s ecological message. As Eliasson asserts:

“It’s literally in our bodies, in our brain and hence I wanted to change the narrative of the climate from the brain and make it an emotional affair into our bodies.” [17]

Despite the artist’s didactic intention, the factual result is an overly aesthetic experience and remains an “emotional affair,” [18] the visual consumption of which sadly undermines the political or social message. While it is true that scientific knowledge can be more fully comprehended if directly perceived through the view or touch, ‘Ice Watch’ can also be uncritically taken as mere entertainment. Despite the fact that the installation has the potential to create a space of togetherness, opening a space for inter-subjective discourse and action that might also be experienced as an urgent call to immediate (co-)action, [19] the memento mori risks to be grasped only by a few educated viewers. This limits the titanic installation potential of becoming a fertile ground for ecological and critical environmentalist discussion and does not challenge the supporting institutions.

In the end, both the calculations of more sustainable transportation which cost a lot of energy as well as the same display of gigantic pieces of millennia-old ice deliberately left in an urban setting to melt have been overshadowed by the installation’s spectacular aspects, attested by mass consumption of the work-spectacle through visual social media under the hashtag #IceWatchLondon. [20] Indirectly, by skillfully managing the 21st -century technology to zoom into the gradual evanescence of the ice and through an ‘open call’ [21] accessible to everybody, the artist attracted and seduced global citizens to enter and experience the installation. He thus consciously orchestrated a spectacle [22] within a spectacle creating a Matryoshka-like effect that nourishes the public standing of his persona. As an installation art, the viewers are solicited to act, and in doing so, they become active actors of a dynamic ice-melting scenario, in other words, a spectacle in which the viewers-cum-participants are one of the sources of the work itself. In light of this Eliasson emerges as an active agent and global citizen who choreographs the tangible encounter, while embodied viewers are more or less passive participants charmed and captivated by the chunks of ice. [23] Considering these aspects, ‘Ice-Watch’ chiefly represents an aesthetic experience and artistic endeavour that is manufactured as well as authoritatively governed by the artist and the collaborating geologist.

3. Final Remarks: A Spectacular Narrative of the Climate Change

‘Ice Watch’ presents a spatial-temporal metonym for planet Earth, which addresses both a drama caused by unconscious anthropocentric behaviour as well as the shared responsibility to avoid climate disasters. Eliasson chose to restage the most emblematic consequence of climate change, the melting of the polar caps and the raising of the ocean level, in order to dramatize these claims. In doing so, he brought to the scene tons of floating ice gathered in the Greenlandic ocean. The artist’s collaboration with the geologist Rosing points to a primary ambition: portraying the planet as a space in which a person can consciously participate in his/ her own life and time, thus promoting self-awareness in relation to the Earth. The installation not only allowed a tangible encounter between the viewer/ participant and the ice-melting, but it ultimately brought to the centre the anthropocentrism in which mankind is both responsible, but also the only saviour of an ecological disaster that threatens the current eco-system including humanity itself. Through the performative act encouraged by the artist, the embodied educated viewer [24] can better comprehend the impact of the human action on nature: although solidified, within less than twenty-four hours, the old ice melted once people touched it, losing its original weight, ending into drops of water, thus proving its vulnerability. The Anthropos not only changes the surface of the ice by touching it, thus challenging the aesthetic experience, but the human body heat also accelerates the ice melting.

Aspects of progressive contemporary art, consumer culture, spectacle, and museum facilities overlapped while entanglements provided the viewer with the chance to experience and to catch chances for self-recognition. Intriguingly, Eliasson not only brought to the metropolitan open spaces the Greenland ice to be seen by everybody coming across Tate Modern Museum and Bloomberg headquarters, but he also launched the hashtag #IceWatchLondon through popular media such as Twitter and Instagram, thus creating an ‘open call’ addressed to the masses rather than to a target audience. The glacial installation possesses the ability to narrate the tragic disappearing of the millennia-old ice in Greenland and to foretell its consequences through the participatory act of the viewers themselves when accessing it. ‘Ice Watch’ openly calls for an actively engaged spectator, casting the embodied viewer in a principal role in the aesthetic production of the artwork, its materiality and the human body effects on it. Perhaps spectacle is required in order to gain a wider audience invited through the circulation of images and shots made by participants when watching and experiencing such an exceptional natural piece in order to spread the message on a big scale.

Furthermore, Eliasson genuinely anthropomorphised the glacial blocks using the air bubbles fizzling as the voice of the nature asking for sustainable interventions. The originally frozen air bubbles pop as soon as the iceberg melts, provoking the fizzing sound, metaphorically associated with the tears of Greenland. While inviting the viewer to hear these sounds, Eliasson minimizes the agency of nature and gives instructions to the same viewer. The gigantic blocks are presented by the artist as specimen worth protecting. However, in doing so, the participants, fascinated by such a spectacle, are triggered to touch the ice with their corporeality through a semi-spontaneous reaction and to have a sensory encounter. Thus, despite the lower degrees of London winter weather, the heat of their body further reinforces the melting of ice, transforming them into direct accomplices of the melting. Yet, climate change awareness and spectatorship stay in a dialectical relation. In this analogy of how we consume natural sources without concerns for sustainability, Eliasson translates the impact of the Anthropos into a visual, sensitive, and emotional experience. The rhetorical device that introduces the installation ‘watch’ – a stative verb to situate the viewer in front of the ice – resonates with the United Nation Climate Change Conference’s goals. [25] The same act of seeing is put at centre-stage: the observer and the observed, the human and the non-human world. Although the viewer is further confronted with the general human-induced melting of the ice as well as his/ her individual impact, the “emotional affair” risks to remain a mere divertissement.

In conclusion, in exploring distinct modalities of awareness and conventions of knowing, the artist encourages a critical attitude toward an ecological engagement, but he does not offer a model or an alternative. Indeed, ‘Ice Watch’’s millennia-old Greenland ice carrying the multi-layered uncontaminated strata of times contrasts to the highly polluted environment of the 21st century, but its material representation ends into an artistic spectacle rather than into an inspiring and mandatory urgent mobilization. Mining the zone of the ecological, the installation is, for the majority of people crossing the zone, a form of entertainment and not one of worlding, i.e. envisaging a different world and global citizenship. Although displayed outdoors, ‘Ice Watch’ is still part of the museum and even though, Eliasson does not fully enter the anthropocentric climate change discourse. Finally, watching as a tool to opt for sustainable alternatives, ultimately emerges not as a plausible instrument to catalyse civic engagement. For all these reasons it is therefore easy to assume Eliasson to have simply installed gargantuan endangered icebergs as to cater to the 21st-century aesthetic appeal or rather, to have orchestrated the experience of an “emotional affair” as a prelusive platform for ecocritical debate.


[1] “What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic” – climate change in the Arctic will have global consequences and cannot be ignored,” Nato Parliamentary Assembly, last modified August 24, 2020,  https://www.nato-pa.int/news/what-happens-arctic-does-not-stay-arctic-climate-change-arctic-will-have-global-consequences.

[2] Lawrence, Mark G et al.,“Evaluating climate geoengineering proposals in the context of the Paris Agreement temperature goals,” Nature Communications, vol. 9,1 3734 (13 September 2018): DOI:10.1038/s41467-018-05938-3.

[3] Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005): 6.

[4] “What is the Paris Agreement?,” United Nations Climate Challenge, last modified August 24, 2020, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/what-is-the-paris-agreement.

[5] Elly Parsons, “Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’ Confront Londoners with the Realities of Climate Change,” Wallpaper, December 11, 2018, https://www.wallpaper.com/art/olafur-eliasson-ice-watch- london.

[6] “Ice Watch,” Ice Watch London, last modified August 24, 2020, https://icewatchlondon.com.

[7] “Ice Watch,” Ice Watch London, last modified August 24, 2020, https://icewatchlondon.com.

[8] Olafur Eliasson and Robert Irwin, “Take your Time: A Conversation,” in Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn, San Francisco, New York: Museum of Modern Art Thames & Hudson, 58.

[9] “Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch Slowly Disappearing,” Public Delivery, last modified August 24, 2020, https://publicdelivery.org/olafur-eliasson-ice-watch/.

[10] Bishop 2005, 6.

[11] Kaija Kaitavouri, The Participator in Contemporary Art (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 32.

[12] Bishop 2005, 10.

[13] Bishop 2005, 6.

[14] “Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing Ice Watch,” Tate, last modified August 24, 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/olafur-eliasson-and-minik-rosing-ice- watch.

[15] “Ice Watch,” Ice Watch London, last modified August 24, 2020, https://icewatchlondon.com.

[16] Kaitavouri 2018, 32.

[17] “Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch Slowly Disappearing,” Public Delivery, last modified August 24, 2020, https://publicdelivery.org/olafur-eliasson-ice-watch/.

[18] “Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch Slowly Disappearing,” Public Delivery, last modified August 24, 2020, https://publicdelivery.org/olafur-eliasson-ice-watch/.

[19] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, transl. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon Quentigny: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 16.

[20] See the hashtag #IceWatchLondon promoted by the same artist, reported both on the panels accompanying the installation as well as the press release https://icewatchlondon.com and http://olafureliasson.net.s3.amazonaws.com/subpages/icewatchlondon/press/IceWatch_London_pr ess_release-11-December.pdf; similarly, the same Tate Museum: launched the twitt under https://twitter.com/Tate/status/1072474086394216452.

[21] Kaitavouri 2018, 146.

[22] Bishop 2005, 11.

[23] Kaitavouri 2018, 148.

[24] Bishop 2005, 6.

[25] “What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic” – climate change in the Arctic will have global consequences and cannot be ignored,” Nato Parlamentary Assembly, last modified August 24, 2020, https://www.nato-pa.int/news/what-happens-arctic-does-not-stay-arctic-climate-change- arctic-will-have-global-consequences.


Bishop, Claire. Installation Art: A Critical History. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Bourriaud, Nicholas. Relational Aesthetics, transl. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon Quentigny: Les Presses du Réel, 2002.

Grynszetejn, Madeleine, ed. Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson. San Francisco, New York: Museum of Modern Art Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Ice Watch London. “Ice Watch.” Last modified August 24, 2020, https://icewatchlondon.com.

Lawrence, Mark G et al.,“Evaluating climate geoengineering proposals in the context of the Paris Agreement temperature goals,” Nature communications, vol.9, 1 3734 (13 September 2018), 1-19, DOI:10.1038/s41467-018-05938-3.

Kaitavouri, Kaija. The Participator in Contemporary Art. London; New York: Bloombsbury, 2018.

Nato Parlamentary Assembly. “What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic” – climate change in the Arctic will have global consequences and cannot be ignored.” Last modified August 24, 2020, https://www.nato-pa.int/news/what-happens-arctic- does-not-stay-arctic-climate-change-arctic-will-have-global-consequences.

Parsons, Elly. “Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’ Confront Londoners with the Realities of Climate Change,” Wallpaper, December 11, 2018, https://www.wallpaper.com/art/olafur-eliasson-ice-watch-london.

Public Delivery. “Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch Slowly Disappearing.” Last modified August 24, 2020, https://publicdelivery.org/olafur-eliasson-ice-watch/.

United Nations Climate Challenge. “What is the Paris Agreement?.” Last modified August 24, 2020, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/what- is-the-paris-agreement.

Tate. “Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing Ice-Watch.” Last modified August 24, 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/olafur-eliasson-and-minik- rosing-ice-watch.

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