Art of Science: Time and Ice Melt Away at COP21


If you‘re hosting a big gathering, you can always count on Olafur Eliasson to bring the ice. Two years after he brought chunks of an Icelandic glacier to MoMA PS1 in New York, Danish-Icelandic artist Eliasson has trucked 80 tons of Greenland glacier to Paris, where the UN Climate Summit (COP21) is being held.

The installation, now melting slowly in front of the Panthéon , is called Ice Watch. The twelve boulders of ice are arranged like a watch, or clock face, to indicate the passing of time. Visitors can see the ice dwindle over the course of the summit, observing for themselves the disappearance of ice which has endured for centuries. You can see photos and video of the gradual melt on Studio Olafur Eliasson’s Instagram account. (So far they seem to be holding up pretty well.)

Eliasson, who created the work in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing, specifically chose calved chunks of icebergs made of compressed snow for the installation, to highlight the importance of ice in preserving history.  As Rosing explained to the New Yorker, “Inside the iceberg, you see snow layers in sequence as you go back in time. Because it is compressed, the air between the snowflakes that fell thousands of years ago is trapped in tiny bubbles.”

Besides watching the melting, visitors to Ice Watch can hear the ice cracking as it releases air that is thousands of years old. Says Eliasson, “It is a little pop that has travelled fifteen thousand years to meet you in Paris, and tell the story of climate change.”



The Art of Science: Frozen Moments

Ice sculpture at the 2014 Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
Ice sculpture at the 2014 Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

You build with what you have, so it’s no surprise that people in cold regions like Russia and Northern China have been making things from ice for centuries.  In the past few years, artists from both places have expanded on these traditions using science and technology to explore new directions in ice and snow art.

Since at least the 1600s, people from China’s Heilongjian province have used buckets to freeze water, hollowed out the molded ice and inserted candles to make ice lanterns.  The lanterns became more elaborate over the years, and in the 1960s, the provincial capital, Harbin, starting holding an ice lantern festival. The small, local event grew over the years into an amazing international extravaganza.

For example, the centerpiece of this year’s Harbin Ice and Snow Festival  is a replica of the Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik, Iceland made from 12 thousand meters of ice.  (lots of great pix in this Mental Floss post)

To make such ambitious ice sculptures, artists and engineers have worked together to update the field’s technology. The Harbin sculptures are designed by local engineering students. Traditionally, workers have used huge blocks of river ice and carved with chainsaws, using chisels and heat to shape fine details. Now, they create extra-clear ice by deionizing the water. They use lasers to slice through the ice with much greater control than previously possible, and LED lights to change its color without dyes.

In Russia, the most famous ice structure was the ice palace built for the Empress Anna Ivanovna in 1740. Twenty meters tall and fifty meters wide, the ice palace featured a bed made of giant blocks of ice. The empress decided to use the palace to hold the wedding of a disgraced aristocrat, Prince Mikhail Galitzin, whom Anna Ivanovna forced to marry an unattractive female jester, Avdotya Buzheninova. The couple survived their wedding night in the ice bed, reportedly by trading jewels for a guard’s sheepskin coat.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with science or art, we’re getting to that.

Russian born scientist and novelist Julia Sidorova was fascinated by the story of the ice palace, asking herself, “Was it a torture chamber or a scientific experiment?” Using this odd historical event as the starting point of her story, Sidorova wrote the 2013 novel The Age of Ice, taking as her main character one of the twins she imagined was born from that night on an icy bed. Her protagonist, Alexander Velitzyn, might be best described as a man with a core of ice. He is immune to cold, and also immortal. He becomes an artist of ice, although not an ice sculptor. It’s complicated.

Sidorova, the author, is a biomedical scientist who works with human DNA at the University of Washington.  She told Seattle Magazine, “Science is always embedded in my stories because it’s my world outlook.” She describes herself as “a complexity seeker” and that seems to hold true for both her scientific and literary styles.

In the hands of artists like Sidorova and the sculptors of Harbin, frozen water can get very complex and sophisticated. As a material, ice comes almost prepackaged with metaphors: it’s hard, it’s cold, it cracks, it can be pure and clear or cloudy and dirty. And of course, in the end, ice melts. Even in frigid Harbin, with an annual average temperature of just 38 degrees Fahrenheit, the giant sculptures generally don’t last beyond the end of February. This hard truth adds yet another layer to ice as art – its ephemeral nature adds poignancy to its beauty.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, nothing cold can stay.

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