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A glacier on display.

Part of an Icelandic glacier on display at the art museum MoMA PS1, in Queens, New York.

Photograph by Rena Silverman

Rena Silverman

for National Geographic

Published June 29, 2013

By the time Olafur Eliasson came up with the idea to display chunks of glacier as an art exhibit, he had already spent a lot of time at the mouth of the Icelandic glacier Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe, watching it melt.

"Vatnajökull is the only place in the world where you can stand off on the sand and watch big chunks of glacier break," said Eliasson.

The Danish-Icelandic artist believes most people are disconnected from the effects of climate change because they can't physically see it. His exhibit, which opened last month as part of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1, in Queens, New York, aims to change that.

"It's not like New York is going to go see the glacier in Iceland, so it makes sense to take some piece of Iceland and bring it to New York," he said.

Six months before the exhibition, Eliasson asked two friends in Iceland to look out for pieces of fallen, transportable glacier. The two men went to Vatnajökull every day for three weeks until they had collected suitable pieces of ice, which were then carefully loaded into refrigerated containers normally used to export fish out of Iceland.

"You basically transport the ice like you would transport a container full of frozen salmon," said Klaus Biesenbach, director of the museum and curator of the exhibit. "Same way, same procedure."

Once the ice arrived at the museum, the trick was to keep the ice frozen so that it maintained its original shape. The museum turned one of their main galleries into a walk-in freezer chilled by an overhead air conditioner.

As some critics have pointed out, keeping the room sufficiently cool requires a lot of energy, although the air conditioner at PS1 is fueled in part by the museum's recently installed solar roof panels. The temperature ranged from 5°F to 20°F on the day of my visit.

Entering the gallery is an awe-inspiring experience. (This is especially true in the heat of the summer.) You are in the middle of a white, frigid room, surrounded by several glaciers scattered around seemingly at random. Each glacier has its own unique tint, shape, and character. Some are rhombic and upright, others curl like fists into the floor, and others are belly down on the ground, almost gliding, like stingrays. Colors range from pale blue to clear (the bluer the ice, the denser the glacier). Some were smaller than a porcupine, while others were larger than a black bear.

According to PS1, the pieces of ice chosen for the project are about 800 years old. That sounds about right to Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scambos speculates that the ice came from the "Little Ice Age," the period between the 16th and 19th centuries during which glaciers grew larger than they ever have since—and advanced quickly.

"These glaciers bear testimony to our history-being suspended and frozen for thousands of years-and now they are melting away, as if our whole history is fading," said Eliasson.

At the end of the exhibition in September, the glaciers "will do what they would have done without the exhibition weeks ago," says Biesenbach. That is, they will melt.

2 comments
Miguel Rodriguez
Miguel Rodriguez

At the end of the exhibition it would be a good idea to turn off the air conditioner and let the glaciers melt. Is a good way to create consciousness about global warming.

Adam Howard Cross
Adam Howard Cross

@Miguel Rodriguez it says this at the end of the article. "At the end of the exhibition in September, the glaciers "will do what they would have done without the exhibition weeks ago," says Biesenbach. That is, they will melt."   

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