The rate and scale at which climate change is taking place is almost too mind-boggling to wrap our heads around. You could spend a good portion of the next 12 years—about how long the United Nations warns we have to get the destruction semi under control—trying to understand, for example, just how big of a deal it is that Greenland alone now loses 200 to 300 billion tons of land ice per year. Or you could follow the advice of Olafur Eliasson and simply see, touch, feel, smell, listen to, and even lick a teensy, dwindling portion of the country’s actual ice sheet—an experience that, according to his research, will do much more to motivate you toward actually tackling climate change than studying data from even the most hair-raising predictions about its effects.
A Scandinavian installation artist known for manipulating natural phenomena, Eliasson has previously used his work to pull off moves like making waterfalls flow uphill. More recently, however, he’s turned his attention toward studying behavioral psychology, concentrating in particular on how one facilitates massive behavioral change. Oh, and he’s also been working on an unprecedented scale, which is why “massive” in this case does not remotely measure up to waterfalls; instead, it refers to however many people across the world will be needed to tackle climate change.
Of course, not even Eliasson can start on that macro of a level. Instead, he began at a fjord near Nuuk in Greenland, where he worked with a crew to fish 30 enormous, centuries-old blocks of ice weighing anywhere between one-and-a-half and six tons out of the ocean that they were melting into; 10,000 or so similarly sized blocks break off of Greenland’s ice sheet each and every second. With the help of some oversize refrigerators, he then packed each one up and sent them on their way to England, which is how two dozen of them ended up assembled outside of the Tate Modern, near the banks of the Thames.
In this new environment, they’ve now transformed into tools for Eliasson to, as he told the Guardian, “emotionalize” climate change data or “make it physically tangible.” Until they melt away, which onlookers are already potentially unwittingly documenting on Instagram, they’ve also already made up the third edition of Ice Watch, Eliasson and the geologist Minik Rosing’s project aiming to bring the effects of climate change a bit closer to home—hence its slogan “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
The blocks have been making quite a bit of noise since they touched down in London—literally, seeing as each is made up not of frozen water but compressed snow, meaning those who get close enough can hear them pop and fizz as they melt. Those sounds have already been accompanied by complaints that Ice Watch is in fact adding to the same destruction that the artist claims to decry, prompting a response even more sobering than a memento mori with one foot in the grave: that the sheer rate at which Greenland is losing icebergs—315,400,000,000 total per year—actually makes it impossible for Eliasson to overharvest.