Aleksandr Bierig


“Ice Watch” by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing. Bankside, outside Tate Modern, London, 2018. Photo Credit: Justin Sutcliffe available at Over the past seven years, the artist Olafur Eliasson and the geologist Minik Rosing have coordinated a series of works called “Ice Watch,” a project mentioned briefly in the introduction to this essay. For each version of the piece, fragments of the melting Greenland Ice Sheet have been collected at sea and then shipped and trucked to city centers, forming installations timed to coincide with international summits on climate change—2014 Copenhagen, 2015 Paris, 2018 London. In each instance, the blocks of ice formed a series of found sculptures that melted over the course of a number of days, depending on local conditions. (The first installation, in Copenhagen, consisted of twelve fragments arranged in a circle, recalling a clock.) In one of the videos chronicling the project, Rosing says that he and Eliasson wanted the ice fragments to convey “some kind of reality.” When we are told that ice sheets are melting, he continued, “it is an abstract phenomenon. But here you see a real part of the ice sheet melting away.”

“Ice Watch” outside Bloomberg’s European headquarters (London 2018) by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing. Photo credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey available at The last iteration of “Ice Watch” took place in December 2018 in London, England. One of its two installations took place in the City of London, in front of the recently completed European headquarters of Bloomberg, L.P. (the charity arm of Bloomberg, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has provided funding for the project). Photos of this installation show six blocks of melting ice in view of the church of St. Stephen Walbrook, a building reconstructed by Christopher Wren in the years following the Great Fire of London—a project that was paid for, in part, by the City coal tax.

The second, concurrent installation of London’s “Ice Watch” took place on the southern bank of the Thames river in front of the Tate Modern museum. More than two centuries earlier, the “London Directory” of the 1790 Universal British Directory of Trade and Commerce listed thirteen separate “coal merchants” located on this same site, Bankside, a place where the agents received and distributed shipments of fuel. Coal, to be sure, was imported at hundreds of locations along the Thames (346 are listed in the Universal British Directory), but Bankside seems to have been one of its centers in the late eighteenth century because of the need to supply the brewers, soap-makers, and other manufacturing concerns of Southwark, a poor district located some distance from the wealthier parts of the metropolis where regulations on pollution were permissive. Evelyn’s spatial solution, again.

There is, of course, no simple connection between “Ice Watch” and the coal merchants who once piled up fuel on this same spot. Like any urban center, this swath of London has been the site of countless overturnings in that long span of human time—not least, here, the construction of Bankside Power Station (initially fired by coal), its eventual abandonment, and its later renovation into one of the centers of the global art world. At the same time, the accumulated history on this site shows how geographies of power tend to be cumulative and persistent. Climate change affects everyone and everywhere, but it did not come from everyone and everywhere. As many have pointed out—signally, the 1991 report Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism—the unequal distribution of this history must be a fundamental consideration for all future designs.

“Ice Watch” Bankside, outside Tate Modern (London 2018) by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing. Photo Credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey available at

I am struck, finally, by the pristine quality of the fragments of “Ice Watch,” their literal impassiveness, unwitting accomplices paraded around as part of this northern climate theater. Such clean forms were not out of place next to an art museum. But even more important, I think, was their timescale: the blocks dissolved in about a week, just fast enough to watch them melt away. Not too long, or too short. Scaled, in other words, to a human perception of time and space.

The compass of our perspective is always limited. We may keep distant places and times in mind, but, in the end, it is most often our country, our city, and our hearth to which we attend. Bringing climate change down to the visceral perceptions of the individual was the goal of “Ice Watch,” but we must think, too, of what such aesthetic satisfactions leave out—of what we can see but perhaps not feel, immediately. I hope the examples discussed here begin to suggest how the history of fossil fuel and its unfinished legacies require questioning our own assumptions about things like comfort or stability, and considering what basis those expectations are founded on. It also requires thinking between our own experiences and others: between the piece of coal and its buried hinterlands, between the individual and her many possible collectives, past and future.


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