In 1999, artist Olafur Eliasson photographed several dozen glaciers in Iceland as part of his on-going project to document the natural phenomena of the country; this particular series of photographs formed a work called The glacier series. Twenty years later, Eliasson decided to return to Iceland to photograph the glaciers again. A new work, The glacier melt series 1999/2019, brings together thirty pairs of images from 1999 and 2019 to reveal the dramatic impact that global warming is having on our world.
The glacier melt series 1999/2019 is on view as part of the exhibition In real life at Tate Modern, London, through 5 January 2020 and at Guggenheim Bilbao from 14 February to 21 June 2020; it is also on view in an exhibition at Reykjavik Art Museum
from 28 November 2019 to 9 February 2020.
"In 1999 I travelled to Iceland to document a number of the countrys glaciers from the air. Back then, I thought of the glaciers as beyond human influence. They were awe-inspiring and exhilaratingly beautiful. They seemed immobile, eternal. I was struck at the time by the difference between the human scale and the scale of geo-history. For me a glacier or a rock seem solid, but on the geological scale, rocks and glaciers are constantly in motion.
This summer, twenty years later, I went back to photograph the same glaciers from the same angle and at the same distance. Flying over the glaciers again, I was shocked to see the difference. Of course, I know that global heating means melting ice and I expected the glaciers to have changed, but I simply could not imagine the extent of change. All have shrunk considerably and some are even difficult to find again. Clearly this should not be the case, since glacial ice does not melt and reform each year, like sea ice. Once a glacier melts, it is gone. Forever. It was only in seeing the difference between then and now a mere twenty years later that I came to fully understand what is happening. The photos make the consequences of human actions on the environment vividly real. They make the consequences felt.
This August, I joined a group of people to commemorate the passing of Okjökull, the first glacier in Iceland to vanish entirely as a result of human activity. It was a humbling experience. A plaque laid at the site bears an inscription, drafted by the Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason, that poses a question to future generations: We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
I hope that we have now reached a turning point. We have a responsibility towards future generations to protect our remaining glaciers and to halt the progress of global heating. Every glacier lost reflects our inaction. Every glacier saved will be a testament to the action taken in the face of the climate emergency. One day, instead of mourning the loss of more glaciers, we must be able to celebrate their survival."
--Ólafur Elíasson, 2019