It was planned as a wake-up call to one crisis, but it is sailing towards the heart of another. A mass of ice harvested from Greenland is currently on its way to Paris, where it is due to be installed on Place de la République on 29 November to mark the UN climate change conference COP 21. “The blocks are in freezer containers normally used to ship shrimps from Greenland,” says Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist behind Ice Watch Paris.
He imagined the work as a way of making the fragility and decay of the Arctic visible, not to mention tangible: “You stand in front of the ice, and then you can touch it.” Now, it also feels like a strange and unexpected homage to Paris itself.
If Ice Watch Paris does go ahead (Eliasson hopes to know in the next few days), it will inevitably become about the survival of culture as well as the peril of nature.
“Isis has been blowing up anything remotely resembling cultural identity,” says the artist renowned for bringing the sun indoors at the Tate’s Turbine Hall. “To express your voice in a free space becomes ever more important.”
Public art is one of the most powerful expressions of a great city, from Palmyra (whose beauties have been destroyed by Isis) to Paris, where many people have been gathering since the weekend on the very square that Eliasson hopes to illuminate with 12 blocks of what he calls the “magic glass” that is Arctic ice.
“What we see now in Place de la République is people going and placing flowers,” he says. “The public space actually holds your emotional need. I went to put down flowers: I became part of a community.”
Paris has a unique history as a city of squares and crowds. Place de la République was created by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century in a tradition of grand open gathering places that goes back to the French Revolution. Eliasson contrasts the great civic spaces of Paris with those of London, which are by contrast shaped by royalty and “heirarchy”. “France being a republic, the public really means something else,” he explains. “Paris is really the city of cities in civic terms. It is the city of the people.”
Like the flowers on Place de la République, he hopes his ice will provide a “quiet and contemplative” collective experience.
“The ice has this very strong poetic quality. It gives you that space to reconsider, somehow. I think there is something very touching about it. It’s incredibly beautiful. And the physical impact this big piece of ice has on your body is really intense. You’ll see children hugging it, even tasting it …”
Ice Watch Paris is intended as a memorial to the Arctic. “The ice we are going to put in Paris is a tenth of what melts in a second in the Greenland summer.” It is a way to make the data real, to make the facts emotionally potent.
And yet, this silent, sombre hunk of ice would surely resonate with the numbed feelings of a city in shock. If it goes ahead, it will be both a call to action on the climate and a gathering place, a shared moment, for a wounded city. “Does what you’re looking at accept you and reflect your emotional need?” asks Eliasson. “I am feeling afraid. Does it reflect my fear? If it’s a great work of art, it hosts people.”
If there’s any artist whose work seems appropriate to Paris right now it is Eliasson. His awe-inspiring installations are not afraid to play on our psychological connection with the natural world. His extraordinary creation of a sun inside Tate Modern appealed to our ancient impulse to worship our mother star. It created a community of contemplation, a natural wonder in the city.
Nature becomes culture in his work, and its marvels are brought into urban settings where we can hold and share and be moved by them. Perhaps in some unplanned way, the presence of such a spectacle on Place de la République will be consoling as well as challenging. For the ability to wonder at nature is itself a defining quality of civilisation.
Eliasson is waiting with “respect” to hear if Ice Watch Paris can go ahead.
“My artwork is on its way, as we speak,” he says. “I hope by the time it reaches harbour, it will know where to go.”