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The 'Northwest Passage' At MIT Reminds Us Of Warming Waters And Our Role In Climate Change

MIT.Nano; Art Installation: Olafur Eliasson
MIT.Nano; Art Installation: Olafur Eliasson

Walking up the pathway to MIT's nanotechnology research building, look up. You'll notice rings hanging from the ceiling. Some are lit up with LEDs and disappear into the surface. Amorphous stainless steel panels reflect the shapes back.

The panels are based on the silhouette of the free-floating ice between North America and the Arctic Circle. With this piece, titled "Northwest Passage," artist Olafur Eliasson wants to engage viewers in the embodied experience of climate change.

The site-specific installation's name is a nod to the physical sea route to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, which for centuries has been ice-bound, but with the acceleration of global warming, is melting, allowing ships to sail through without an icebreaker.

Olafur Eliasson's "Northwest Passage" installed at MIT. (Courtesy Anton Grassl/MIT)
Olafur Eliasson's "Northwest Passage" installed at MIT. (Courtesy Anton Grassl/MIT)

Olafur, an internationally renowned Danish-Icelandic artist, views art as an encounter, where the viewer is co-writer and co-producer. Over the span of his nearly 40-year career, he's established his style as a creator of sculptures and large-scale installations and has exhibited around the world. In 2003, "The Weather Project" was installed at London’s Tate Modern. With mist, mirrors and an illusory orange setting sun, it compelled viewers to lay down or wave their limbs to locate themselves on the mirrored ceiling of an artificial dusk. In 2015, "Ice Watch" involved the harvest and transport of glacial ice chunks to Paris’ Place du Panthéon in time for the international UN Climate Change Conference. Viewers were invited to touch and press their ears against the melting ice to hear the pops and hisses of trapped prehistoric air emerging from between 15,000-year-old snowflakes.

Through his work, Olafur says he explores the gap between what we know and what we do.

“There has never been as much information as accessible as there is now,” says Olafur, who speaks in a hushed, rushed and liquid manner. “But all of this information, all of the news, in the news media and so on, is mediated knowledge. It’s non-embodied knowledge, it’s not muscle-memory, it’s a different kind of learning. I’m interested in what are the stories out there and how do we apply the stories in a physical language, in embodied knowledge, going from abstract to tangible, turning thinking into doing, turning ideas into action.”

Olafur was invited to create the piece through MIT's Percent for Art program, which budgets up to $500,000 for art at each new renovation or campus construction project. For the state-of-the-art nanotechnology building, called MIT.nano, Building 12, the artist said he wanted to focus on the less prominent spaces.

The passageway to the door of the building was perfect. "It's a transit. ... It's a calculation between two points more than actually a space in itself, so a lot of it for me personally is that it has to do with process,” he says. “If you think about it there is no space which does not have a sort of inscribed behavioral agenda.” His fascination yet obvious familiarity with ideas, theories and concepts of space, art and his work pour forth in a casual yet invigorated Scandinavian accent.

Though there are obvious connections to climate change — the stainless steel shapes mimic chunks of ice floating away from melting ice sheets, the semi-circles emit a sunny yellow light -- Olafur says he's hesitant to apply a specific narrative to "Northwest Passage."

"I think you can also see it as an experimental spatial setup with a semi-circular lantern or lamp that once you see it in the mirror appears to be a circle and you might need a moment ... to figure out this is not really a full circle."

The process of finding that out, Olafur says, acknowledges that seeing itself is an act — that what you see is relative to your own perspective.

Olafur says, "If you think about it, the ice sheets are actually reflecting the ground on which I stand, maybe it’s not about what I see up there, maybe it’s actually what I feel underneath my feet, and the fact that if I look a bit closer I could actually position myself so that I see myself up in the mirror and suddenly I see myself in the ice sheet."

How does Olafur view the role of the artist in the time of climate change?

“It’s the same as everybody else: to talk about what they think is important, to do what they think is important, to participate in what they think is important.”

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