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“The physical experience of centuries-old ice from the glaciers of Eliasson’s native Iceland makes tangible a history that extends beyond the human life span—time that is measured in thousands of years rather than mere decades.” — MoMA Ps1
This summer, there are at least two sub-freezing spaces where heat-weary New Yorkers can retreat. One is the new Minus5 Ice Bar in Manhattan (with two other locations in Las Vegas). The other, a small room at MoMA PS1.
At the door of the Minus5 bar guests are offered parkas or faux fur coats and can sit at a bar sculpted of ice, drinking vodka out of an ice glass, in a space kept near 23 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The Minus5 website claims their frigid environment is constructed entirely of imported blocks of “100% Canadian ice.”
One hundred percent Icelandic ice that “broke off” from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, about six months ago, can be found at MoMA PS1, courtesy of the artist Olafur Eliasson (he first exhibited ice as art in 2006 in Berlin). To keep the glacial ice from melting further, the thermostat of the room at PS1 is set to maintain a temperature between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Eliasson’s project, provocatively titled, Your Waste of Time is a “module” of PS1’s EXPO 1: New York, an exhibition that describes itself as: “an exploration of ecological challenges in the context of the economic and sociopolitical instability of the early 21st century” (read more).
In full disclosure, FOP has visited Eliasson’s ice room only. Yet, when we consider these two icy chambers, one bar and one art installation, in juxtaposition and situated in New York City (a location increasingly forced to accept its precarious exposure to impending rising sea-levels induced by melting glaciers), some interesting resonances occur. Vast material affordances support the existence of both of these endeavors. Though the air conditioner at PS1 keeping the Icelandic ice frozen is fueled in part by the museum’s solar panels, when we asked a gallery attendant if PS1 would be keeping the panels after EXPO 1 is over, the reply was “no.” This seemed awkward, given the long view Eliasson’s work is attempting to make possible and the overall mandate of exhibition.
Regardless, it’s worth noting that, at least at this moment, both the artists and entrepreneurs who created these icy spaces inhabit a planet and economies that enable the existence of such resource intensive projects and their myriad and complex systems of support. For a look at how chilled landscapes that are in service to the American food supply play out on a daily basis across the entire continent, on behalf of all of us, we highly recommend following the work of Nicola Twilley and her co-curated exhibition with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Perishable: An Exploration of the Refigerated Landscape of America.
Ice filled rooms, at least in theory, would have been a seductive destination for anyone last week as New York City heat indices soared over 100 degrees. But these two spaces are also entrenched in their respective cultural contexts. They seem to be attracting the usual audiences that are drawn to hip art museums or gimmicky bars even on days when heat indices don’t trigger warnings. But, once you are at PS1 or Minus5, the physical impact of the cold presents a degree of exposure atypical in daily life. You can’t linger comfortably inside either, unless you have gear. So what kind of experience do you have if you visit the ice at PS1, where fur coats aren’t offered as you enter the room?
Eliasson said he hopes Your Waste of Time encourages “contemplation.” He also said: “most people are disconnected from the effects of climate change because they can’t physically see it.” While we attempted to take up this invitation during our visit, we could only endure the sensory onslaught for around two minutes. Several small groups of people raced in and out, mostly laughing and snapping photos of themselves by the ice before escaping in less than 30 seconds. No one seemed to be pondering climate change or considering the material origins of the displaced ice. The twelve chunks scattered around the room looked dirty and haggard under the glaring lights and peeling ceiling. Though a deep and mesmerizing blue could almost be seen below the surface of a few pieces, but loud fans blasting at very high decibels obliterated any attempt to gather one’s thoughts and “be with the ice.” The staging of the room felt like an afterthought, more akin to an industrial meat locker than a context capable of assisting visitors in grasping the complex and challenging material realities displayed before them.
If you are a dedicated art seeker willing to make a pilgrimage to one of New York’s outer boroughs, you can try to experience first hand how, as Eliasson says, “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.” A fragment of this reality is materially present in the room. Perhaps the increasingly limited and precious nature of ice, its “endangered species” quality, is what makes both the Minus5 bar and the Eliasson sculpture so culturally magnetic, more in theory than in practice.
In our contemporary moment, buffeted by the forces of hyper-objects, it’s hard to pin-point just which of the so many systems that are “out of balance” is the most salient at any given moment. We should feel something “authentic” about being in chilling and intimate proximity to one of the forces of material planetary change — ice — and knowing that it would be melting away, even in waters off Iceland, if it weren’t on life support inside PS1. When we actually think about it, we know it should already be gone. When we take the time to project our imaginations to where this ice came from and pair that reality up with what the climate is like outside the walls of PS1 — it’s easier to comprehend how the change is irreversible.
What then, might we sense or imagine while visiting the bar at Minus5 ? Here, ice is offered more as a signifier for entertainment and luxury, a break from New York reality. It’s definitely not intended to raise questions concerning an impending environmental collapse. It’s easy to propose that it is the over-the-top material resources required to maintain such over-the-top rooms of ice that is driving the glacial ice across town into extinction, especially when it’s 105 degrees outside. But, most of us still can’t, or don’t want to cognitively connect experiences such as Your Waste of Time, to Minus5, to our collectively air-conditioned/heated/electrified homes, refrigerators, airplanes, offices, cars, museums and bars. And it’s here, in this gap of understandings about the vastly different scales of effects — of time and material change — that we miss engaging our window of opportunity to respond creatively and consider what it is that both the Icelandic ice at PS1 and the Canadian ice at Minus5 already “know” about our present condition, even if we can’t stay in the room long enough to realize it for ourselves.
According to Eliasson’s National Geographic interview about his project, at the end of EXPO 1 in early September, his ice will continue on the path it started before being detoured for exhibition in New York. It will melt. It is estimated to be around 800 years old, which means it was born in the last “Little Ice Age.” Despite being relatively young in geologic terms, we think that the spectacular transformation of its form, when 800 years of materiality will soon melt away in a matter of hours, is remarkable. It’s also potentially the most interesting part of the piece, especially if its waters are “released” into the Hudson River or New York Harbor. There, they could meet up with other glacial waters that will be flowing this way in due time. Disappointingly, allowing audiences to view the melting doesn’t seem to be part of the exhibition plan. And unfortunately that means the EXPO 1 installation might be remembered primarily as an eerie, repelling, air-conditioned “life-support” system for displaced Icelandic ice, rather than as a dynamic, aesthetic prosthesis for helping humans to sense and track the changes that are unfolding around us.
Minus5, on the other hand, will preserve their Canadian ice through summer and winter, offering ample opportunity to keep the illusion of ice-abundance alive.
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