“Climate change means culture change.” That is the message Dutch sculptor Ap Verheggen is trying to communicate via CoolEmotion, a project he co-founded with the support of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The first sculptures created by the project’s team of artists—two massive, stylized dogsled whips—were installed in March on an iceberg currently located just off the coast of Uummannaq, Greenland. This exhibition, and similar installations planned for Northern Canada and Siberia, attempt to raise public awareness of the effects climate change is having on the increasingly endangered, icy culture of the far north.
Much of the discussion about climate change has focused on the science and economics of the environmental challenge. Far less attention has been paid to how it will radically alter the lives of some isolated northern communities. Like similarly affected indigenous communities in Africa or the South Pacific islands, Inuit tribes scattered across the frozen north bear little historic responsibility for the rise in greenhouse gases scientists believe is causing global average temperatures to rise. And yet global warming has been felt most acutely in the polar regions and will likely continue to melt the icy climate from which northern communities draw sustenance and inspiration.
This first installation attempts to foster conversation about climate change’s cultural impact using “The Dogsled Riders”, two sculptures inspired by Uummannaq—an island that is home to some 1,300 Inuit residents and an even greater number of sled dogs. For more than 300 years, generations of villagers have survived in a fjord roughly 590 km (367 mi) north of the Arctic Circle by using sea ice to fish and travel to the mainland. Yet in 2009 very little sea ice formed around the island. According to Verheggen, the island had rain on New Year’s Eve. The following month he said it reached “an unprecedented 52 degrees Fahrenheit.” During the installation in March, the team actually had to move the pieces onto the berg with a helicopter instead of sled dogs, as was originally planned.
The team now hopes the sculpture-laden iceberg will ride the ocean currents down to the east coast of Canada and America, attracting media attention all along the way. If the floe should melt before it reaches Newfoundland, the CoolEmotion team says the pure iron sculptures they will not damage the North Atlantic ecosystem, in which dissolved iron plays a natural role.
Unfortunately, the project’s noble aims are not quite matched by its artistic merits. As Gert Polet of WWF explains the concept: “in this time when people are trying to throw doubt on the reality of climate change, it is important that we continue to demonstrate that climate change is real, is happening now, and is triggering vast changes in the Arctic.” CoolEmotion’s demonstration leaves much to be desired. Supplemental videos for the project feature heavy-handed montages of panicked polar bears and human-shaped cairns under threat from the rising tides. The whip sculptures are also a confusingly threatening symbol to associate with climate action. Do climate laggards face the lash for ignoring global warming? Or will nature flog society if climate change is not stopped? As a result, the first attempt by Verheggen and WWF to art and activism falls flat and inspires neither awe nor action.
Even CoolEmotion’s attention-getting ploy, to create a moving, melting exhibit about climate change, is running into problems—specifically, an unaccounted for line of underwater line of rocks. The organizers are now hoping a fortuitous combination of strong winds and high tide will dislodge the currently stationary ice floe sometime around April 28th. On the bright side, one of the neighboring icebergs finally headed out to sea last week.
For all of its artistic shortcomings, the installation remains a unique, interesting, and soon-to-be repeated one. If Mother Nature lends a guiding hand and brings these odd Greenlandic sculptures within camera shot of CNN, they could yet succeed in making North America audiences more aware of climate change’s corrosive influence on traditional cultures.