I. Paris

by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch. 2015. Place du Panthéon, Paris. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

This is an excerpt from Even no. 3, published in spring 2016.


During the last two months of 2015, two very different visions of apocalypse — perhaps always latent in the globalized, hyperconnected background — gathered and crystallized in Paris. If only temporarily, they proved impossible to ignore. There were of course the horrific, coordinated attacks of November 13, which left 130 dead and even more wounded at café tables and in a popular concert hall. Appalling as it was, the atrocity was at least intelligible, the latest awful act in what Pope Francis has called “a piecemeal World War III,” skirmishes of which have since broken out in San Bernardino, Brussels, and Philadelphia, not to mention Beirut and Baghdad and Jakarta. But there was something else, too: the stubborn, unnerving intimation of a greater menace that with each passing season becomes harder to deny.

Paris, in late 2015, was also a hotbed of environmental anxiety, as the city geared up to host the most anticipated climate conference in years. This past year was the hottest in recorded history, and the 19th in a row whose temperatures exceeded the last century’s average. There have been enormous rains and floods in India, Britain, and the US, not to mention forest fires and tornadoes, landslides and hurricanes, in too many places to name. Temperatures have been so unseasonably high this year that the North Pole rose above freezing in December for only the third time since 1948. My family spent Christmas in New York, and on the 25th of December the city hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit. When I asked the owner of the wine shop near my brother’s apartment why she had so many bottles of rosé on prominent display, she shook her head and told me they were selling as if it were the 4th of July.

And yet the mind proves its resilience. For better or worse, it is impossible to remain on high alert, and the world insists on feeling like a comfortable place to live. Almost immediately after the attacks, the café terraces filled again and, despite a definite lingering edge, the fear could not help but fade away. My wife and I live in the next arrondissement from Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge, and as I waited the 20-minute eternity for her phone call to let me know she was all right, I was held in the contours of my own personal apocalypse. Yet such an intensity of feeling or even awareness cannot hold. I remember the courageous normalcy of neighbors and merchants in the bakery the following morning, and then the stroll home from a friend’s house later that evening, through desolate streets. What I remember most was the unsettling feeling of working up a sweat that November night. It was, like Christmas in New York, unseasonably warm.

Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire: Destruction. 1836. Oil on canvas. 39 1⁄4 × 63 1⁄2 in. New-York Historical Society. From the exhibition "A Brief History of the Future," Musée du Louvre, Paris. 2015–16.
Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire: Destruction. 1836. Oil on canvas. 39 1⁄4 × 63 1⁄2 in. New-York Historical Society. From the exhibition "A Brief History of the Future," Musée du Louvre, Paris. 2015–16.

Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist whose large-scale projects often make use of elemental materials, has spent his career challenging us to rethink the ways we see and interpret weather. On December 3, on the circular plaza just in front of the Panthéon, he oversaw the installation of Ice Watch, a sculptural collaboration with the geologist Minik Rosing. The artwork comprised a dozen large blocks of ice formed from thousands-of-years-old snow, which had calved off glaciers near Nuuk Harbor, in the waters off Greenland. Taken together, the blocks weighed nearly 100 tons, and formed a circle 65 feet in circumference. The weight of the ice itself was a statement: it is the same amount that now melts worldwide every hundredth of a second. The circular formation, in case the message still wasn’t clear, represented the face of a ticking clock. (Ice Watch was meant to be installed at Place de la République, the giant square just up the road from the Bataclan; after the attacks the project was relocated to the left bank.)

To call it “art” is generous. Ice Watch was advocacy, a visual pamphlet able to be summarized and hashtagged without sacrificing any ambiguity or meaning. The world’s glaciers are shriveling right in front of us; time is running out; even our best minds look passively on. This is not an entirely new idea for Eliasson. Already presented in Copenhagen last year, it’s a more visible and better-looking rehash of his 2013 MoMA PS1 installation Your waste of time, which brought huge hunks of ice from Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, to Queens (though unlike with Ice Watch, the galleries of PS1 were refrigerated to keep them from melting). The ice in the PS1 show originated sometime around AD 1200; younger than the glaciers brought to Paris, but still so old as to exceed understanding.

We simply don’t live long enough to form meaningful firsthand perspectives on matters as monumental as climate change — or, at least, we haven’t yet. If anything, Ice Watch (and, to a lesser degree, Your waste of time before it) amounts to a brutally effective advertisement of our impotence. Because it invites and even demands our interaction, it cannot help but reveal who we really are, what we value, how we cope with unbearable truths. And how we cope with such truths, it certainly seemed on the afternoon I stopped by, is to try to pretend they’re not there. I witnessed so many families innocently play with the glacial ice, touching it to measure the chill. I saw children laugh and climb on top of the slick, wet blocks as their parents amusedly snapped photos. The end of the world, I left convinced, will at least look pretty on screen, set in Slumber or X-Pro II, with adequate fades and vignettes, then beamed into each of our pockets.