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From Icebergs in Paris to Glacial Mud in the Tropics: Art, Science, and the Arctic Imagination

From Icebergs in Paris to Glacial Mud in the Tropics: Art, Science, and the Arctic Imagination

Last week I was lucky to attend a LIVE from the NYPL event, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing: Arctic Imagination. The Arctic Imagination project is an international and cooperative “brainstorm” in which artists exchange ideas about the melting arctic ice due to climate change and discuss hopes for the future of the planet. The project is a joint effort between The New York Public Library and libraries in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and Nuuk.

Olafur Eliasson is one of the most well-known and diverse visual artists working today. Since 1997 his exhibitions have appeared in major museums worldwide, and his civic projects range from art to architecture.

Minik Rosing is an esteemed professor of geology at the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen. Rosing’s work has focused on the geology of Greenland, and amazingly, he has identified the oldest traces of life on earth.  His work on photosynthesis in Greenland’s sea beds pushed back the date for the beginning of life on Earth from 2.8 billion years ago to 3.7 billion!

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During COP 21, The United Nations Conference on Climate Change in December 2015, Eliasson and Rosing created Ice Watch, a powerful public artwork in the middle of Paris. They placed 12 enormous free-floating icebergs that had broken away from a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland, in the Place du Panthéon and arranged them in a clock formation. Over 9 days the public confronted 10,000 year old icebergs, seeing and hearing them dissolve away to nothing. Eliasson and Rosing delivered climate change to the people of Paris, translating the abstract into reality.

As an admirer of Eliasson’s work which is often inspired by nature, I was eager to hear what he and Rosing had to say about climate change, and the collaboration of artists and scientists in general. While they touched on various interesting topics (including how libraries point more toward the future than the past), two themes resonated with me especially: Using art to communicate science, and the power of optimism in engaging audiences on heavy topics such as climate change. Plus the power of mud! (Read on…)

Eliasson spoke about what art can contribute to the public’s perception of science. He said that the aim of his work with Rosing is to “make explicit what is hard to understand.” Creating art that lets the viewer interact using all of their senses elicits an emotional response which then becomes “a stored memory.” He continued, “Once it is stored as a physical or emotional memory, we are more likely to act upon it. Knowing is interestingly not enough in order to encourage what we call changes of behavior. There’s no doing in knowing.”

Eliasson argues that art has the potential to get more people to understand and care about the environment and life on this planet, because it requires a different kind of emotional engagement than simply reading or hearing about dire scientific facts. In this way, hard scientific data can be interpreted emotionally through art, and this response can drive people to act, perhaps more successfully than any political campaign. He went on to say that in the divisive political climate we live in, art can be particularly effective, as art includes all of us while still allowing room for disagreement.

On positivity, Rosing said that when we think of creative solutions to climate change and arctic melt, we must build on optimism instead of despair. I wholeheartedly agree. With all issues like the climate movement it’s very easy to get depressed and discouraged, and if you focus on the despair you will not be able to engage people. Better to stay hopeful and bring people along rather than overwhelming them to the point of tuning out.  

As an example of creating solutions that work in the present, Rosing spoke of one of the effects from arctic melt in Greenland – much more mud! He said that more mud is irritating, but not if it can be turned into something useful. This glacial mud is unusually high in nutrients because as the glaciers melt they crush rocks into fine mineral-rich powder which then saturates the mud. Rosing and his team are currently studying glacial mud for use in infusing minerals into depleted soils around the world, which could increase the output of crop growth in tropical regions, fight against hunger, and help with reforestation efforts. And as forests regenerate, more carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere, thus further fighting climate change. In the end, transporting this mud from Greenland to regions in the tropics is a carbon-neutral activity. How amazing is that?  

“Another important distinction between science and art is that science is very good at explaining how we do things, and how we can obtain the goals we have. But it’s very, very poor in helping us formulate which direction we want to go, and that is where we need the art. Because it speaks to emotions and less concrete memories, art can help us formulate relevant questions as to where we wish to go. And as soon as these questions are formulated, science can come back into action and help us go there, or maybe help us find places we don’t want to go.”
Minik Rosing, Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark

Overall it was a stimulating and entertaining evening, listening to their back and forth on art and science. While science and art remain distinct domains, they enrich each other and make abstract concepts tangible. Through their beautiful collaborations, Eliasson and Rosing aim to reach that very goal: to inspire, encourage empathy, and spur people to act towards slowing climate change. By working together they have a far greater impact than they would acting alone.

More about Arctic Imagination here.

Visit Eliasson’s Little Sun project - another great collaboration between an artist and an engineer (Fredrik Otteson). This project is transforming lives by bringing solar lamps to off-grid communities. As of last week you can get your own Little Sun Diamond at the MOMA Store!

Learn more about Rosing’s work with glacial mud in his TED Talk.

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Live from the NYPL - Arctic Imagination

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