Monday, 14 December 2015

COP21: Which Artwork Moves You Most?

Last week I was in Paris for COP21 to research various climate related artworks (trying to understand which artworks are most thought-provoking, for whom and why), and saw some quite impressive works of art and art exhibitions. I would like to share the highlights of what I saw in this post and I would love to hear from you which of the artworks listed here appeal(s) to you most. Which one do you find most moving, which one makes you reflect on yourself the most and which one is most likely to drive you to take action? And why does the artwork have that effect on you? Perhaps we can figure out together what moves people, how change is born and what various people need in order to be motivated to make changes.

Below I will give a short description of the top 10 artworks I encountered (in no particular order) and after that I will reveal which ones had the biggest impact on me (and why). The descriptions are of course a bit subjective because I can only describe the work the way I see it and the way I experienced it, but hopefully the photos can offer you a chance to make up your own mind about them as well. I look forward to hearing more about your opinions in the comments!

The artworks

1. Ice Watch, by Olafur Eliasson:
Image from
This work features 12 pieces of Arctic ice (harvested from free-floating ice blocks) in the form of a clock. The 'watch' in the title not only refers to people observing the ice and watching it melt slowly and steadily, but also to the ticking clock that calls for change for the sake of our planet. The work gives people a chance to get a personal experience with the ice that is swiftly disappearing from the earth's poles as a consequence of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change.

2. Stoves, by Sterling Ruby:
Four big wood stoves in the courtyard of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. With them being outside, what are they heating up? Sure, it may keep you warm for as long as the fire is going and while you are near the burning stove, but what else happens? What are the long-term consequences? This work definitely gives us something to think about.

3. The blue whale:

This life-size whale represents the importance of the protection of endangered species on earth (also caused by humans). This blue whale, which can be found on the bank of the Seine, is 33.60 meters long, 8.40 meters high and 14 meters wide. Surrounding the whale are also photos of other animals that are hunted to (or otherwise driven to) extinction by humans, such as the elephant, tiger and rhino.

4. Cloudscapes, by Tetsuo Kondo:

Although this looks like a stairway to heaven, it is more like a stairway to hell. If you go into this 'cloud room', it is like entering a greenhouse (only worse). It feels very warm, stuffy and stifling inside the room. There is definitely a lack of oxygen and it feels like you may suffocate if you stay in too long. I could not help but wonder if the air in the future could become like this everywhere. This is what may happen all around us if we keep cutting down trees. If we don't want to live this way, then we must make changes, collectively. We all either contribute to climate change and pollution, or to a clean, healthy and balanced earth.
At least for now, I could escape these dreadful surroundings by leaving the room and I was relieved and grateful when I could take a deep breath of (relatively) fresh air. Clean, fresh air is priceless and something we should not take for granted.

5. Paris Jungle Tour Eiffel, by Chris Morin-Eitner:

This picture somehow gave me an instant sense of relief. It looks like the earth and its inhabitants are safe in this picture. Humans have stopped interfering and nature has taken over from humans once again. The balance has been restored and earth is in recovery, flourishing once again.
What kind of feeling does this picture provoke in you?

6. Unbearable, by Jens Galschiøt:

 This sculpture represents many things at once, which makes it extremely powerful and thought-provoking. First of all, the 'graph' (which is shaped like an oil-pipe) represents the world's carbon emissions from 1751 until 2015, obviously resulting in the death of the polar bear at the end of the line. Located at the entrance of the university square, it reminded me of a public execution, where we all stand around watching.
What if we could do something? Would you want to help save this bear?

7. Act now, a compilation of posters by various artists / organizations:
A series of thought-provoking images, most of them accompanied by text. I especially liked the last one, where Tarzan ends up swinging right into the desert or empty field because of the rapid destruction of his jungle by fellow humans. There may have been a forest there yesterday, but it is definitely gone today.

8. Freedom to pollute, by Jens Galschiøt:
Image from and
Unfortunately I could not locate this statue in Paris, so I have not seen it while I was there, but I like the concept. It is a cheap replica of the statue of liberty, surrounded by African people. In one hand she holds a sign that reads: Freedom To Pollute. And in the other she has a smoking torch; out of reach for everyone.
What is freedom? Can personal freedom have limits when one's freedom harms other inhabitants of the earth or the earth itself? Who can stop the pollution and destruction in the name of freedom? Can we do it together?

9. Drowning world, by Gideon Mendel

A series of photographs around the world of people who are partly under water due to floods. Upon closer inspection, the pictures show a decrease or increase of the water level; depending on where you start looking at the series. If you start at the left, the water level decreases gradually and if you start at the right then the level of the water increases.The last two pictures of the series are the ones shown on the second photo: the people are almost completely under water. Because I am from the Netherlands, the concern about rising sea-levels is very familiar to me (and one of many reasons I no longer live there).

10. Antarctica World Passport Delivery Bureau, by Lucy & Jorge Orta
Image from

This artwork consisted of two steps. During the first step, visitors are given an explanation of what it means to become a world citizen and what the 'requirements' are. Everyone is given a list of agreements that describes how to look after the earth. The description in the passport is as follows:

"The Antarctica World Passport may be issued to every person wishing to become a citizen of the world allowing them to travel freely. On deliverance it will request in return that each citizen take responsibility for their actions. The new world citizen will dedicate him or herself to combat all acts of barbarity, to fight against intimidation and poverty, to support social progress, to protect the environment and endangered species, to safeguard human dignity and to defend the alienable rights to liberty, justice and peace in the world."

If you are willing to live your life according to these principles, then you can become a 'citizen of the world' and get your world passport.

My experience

For me, the most frightening and confrontational experience was the cloud room (Cloudscapes), because it embodied what I envision the future to be (in the worst case scenario; if humanity does not make any changes). It provided a direct experience of the suffocating future reality of a lack of oxygen in the air, the inescapable fog and the haziness. The lack of color and cloudiness gave me a sense of disorientation. I had reached the top of the stairs, but what for, and at what cost? There was nothing there, and nothing left.
It seems to be the same with life. We chase emptiness (thinking it is important) and destroy everything of real importance along the way. And for what? Do you even know why? If not, then let's make some changes!

The most visually rewarding artwork for me was number 6: Unbearable. This is because everything about it is well-thought-out. It is like a visual puzzle that is exactly right. Everything about the work has a purpose and every part of it is symbolic and meaningful.

I also liked the Antarctica world passport delivery bureau, because it provides an experience and it makes you feel part of something special. It also has a more optimistic feel to it and it helped me to further cement my commitment to the earth and all of its inhabitants. Also, the passport can be a physical reminder to keep priorities straight and to keep our focus on what we can do individually, no matter what anyone else does. Even if we reach the top of the stairway to hell (as in Cloudscapes), I want no part in its creation anymore. Each of us has a choice. We just need to be motivated and determined enough to make a change. If we stop making excuses, we can all make significant contributions to a happier and healthier earth. All that is needed is a first step.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."  ~ Chinese Proverb

My questions to you

1* How environmentally aware and environmentally engaged do you consider yourself to be?
2* Which of the artwork(s) move(s) you most?
3* What thoughts does it bring up?
4* What feelings or emotions does it trigger?
5* What (specific) actions, if any, does it make you consider, or what changes does it encourage you to make?

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