by Sofie B. Ringstad (2021, Kunsthochschule Weißensee)

We live in a historical moment of mass-dismantling monuments. Erected men on horseback are beheaded, their backs broken – they sink to the bottom of bodies of water accompanied by victorious cheering and applause. But there are many ways of dismantling monuments: One of them is melting. 

Ice is water in solid form. It is a common substance: You’ll find it in your drink, on the window pane, below your feet – in fact, it is a substance so convincing in its form that we forget for a moment we are walking on water. But then, at around 0 degrees Celsius, it starts to melt, and as water or steam it can move around the world only to reaffirm in to solidity when the conditions are right. As molecules cool and slow and finally form a consistence, the water-turned-ice physically expands, claiming space – here I am. To move me you must melt me.

Let’s assume that ice, in its many forms and versions, is without consciousness or agenda. It does not represent, does not position itself in any specific cause, it simply exists. Andreas Malm, teacher of Human Ecology at Lund University and author of The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (2018) phrases it as such: “[…] there is nothing intensely subjective but a lot of objectivity in ice melting. Or, as one placard read at a demonstration held by scientists at the American Geophysical Union in December 2016: ‘Ice has no agenda – it just melts.’” (Malm, 2018:97). It does not choose to melt; it does not melt in tantrum over our Co2 emissions. It is unaware of humans – but not unaffected by us.

Despite – and perhaps exactly because of – this impartial position, ice carries a potency that allows it to manifest as a deeply meaningful monument. A monument not created by humans, yet one we obsess over, a monument we consume and that consumes us. A monument with a chilling force, paradoxically most of all so as it evaporates. And it is this performative ability, which allows humans to master ice and it to master us, that transcends ice from solidified element to part-liquified monument.

We have established that ice as a substance is neutral and does not claim to be a monument in itself. This makes it readily available to be claimed by others as one: You can project onto it the meaning you choose, the ice will not object. In the case of ice, the most obvious projector – and thereby also establisher of it as a monument – is the environmental movement, who see melting ice as a transitory monument to the global climate crisis. Indeed, ice does melt as temperatures, in the air and sea, rise. But as blocks of ice invite to bring your own meaning, we shall see that its role as a monument can be claimed by many, and so by playing on its specific qualities.

Let’s remember [sic] that a monument is, in its simplest form, something to remember by. It is there to set a certain tone, make sure that those who experience the monument understand what message its creator or facilitator has intended to convey. But a message can fail, transform or take on a life of its own. Such is the case of the Chilean Pavilion’s iceberg at the 1992 Universal Exposition in Sevilla, Spain.

Almost thirty years after Pinochet’s military coup, Chile was ready to re-enter the global stage as a democracy, and did so by bringing a one-hundred-ton iceberg from its territories in Antarctica to the Andalusian summer heat. The ice was “[…] maintained by an intricate refrigeration system. Six columns surrounding the ice provided a 10°F “air curtain” while internal ducts filled with water and glycol kept the core of the berg at a cool 5°F.3” (Korowin 2010:48), making the pavilion appear as something out of an evil villain’s Hollywood headquarter.

A number of environmental groups protested at the pavilion that nature had been destroyed and fuel had been wasted in the transportation of the ice, and Time Magazine ridiculed the project, leading to the berg to be returned to Antarctica after the exposition (Korowin 2010:48-9).

The monument it was intendedto be – the message conveyed to be remembered – was one dedicated to mastering the complex engineering of extracting, extensively transporting and displaying an Antarctic iceberg without it turning in to water along the way. We might associate it with an exotic animal, brought from somewhere far away to a colonizing nation regent, miraculously still alive. In fact, Guillermo Tejeda, the pavilion’s artistic content director, noted that ice was “the only booty Europeans didn’t carry out of America—because they couldn’t” (Korowin 2010:49) – yet now the Chileans were doing it themselves. So in the end, the monument itbecame was a farcical remembrance to the extractivism in the Americas; and this in a Universal Exposition with the theme “The Age of Discoveries, coinciding with the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic.” (Korowin 2010:49)

An opposite approach to the containment at the Chilean Pavilion, is the work of Belgium-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs. In his work Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) from 1997, a block of ice, which slowly melted as Alÿs pushed (and eventually kicked) it around the streets of Mexico City, became a monument to the tediousness of life in the sprawling city.

Paradox of Praxis I served as an homage to the many blocks of such ice that would be distributed throughout the city in the morning hours, to be utilized and ultimately melted by night. Segments from the work was later incorporated in the installation piece Ice 4 Milk (2004-5), turns our attention to “[…] barely noticeable events in the daily reality of city dwellers, and yet they reveal the unwritten tradition of tiny industries, almost obsolete but persisting in the megalopolises - a touch of humanity nestled within the concrete landscape.” (Millard 2010:4)

Ice serves well as an ephemeral monument to these vital, but small, repetitive events that happen in urban life. Ice, too, has a seemingly unstoppable repetitive cycle – freezing, melting, freezing, melting – one by nature, but is not the clockwork hustle of big cities a form of nature too? Regardless: Alÿs completely gives in to the ice and its self-destruction. He lets it decide the duration of his work (9 hours) (Public Delivery, no date), trusting its predictability to melt, and allows the ice to become both the monument and tool to convey the very monotone routines it is monumentalizing.

Above, we have seen one example of deep striving to overpower the ice, and its contrast, allowing – almost encouraging – it to melt freely and completely. In both cases, the ice becomes a monument, and its performativity, the whether or not it melts, is key in both cases. Then, there are monuments that, although perhaps not expressively – indeed, awkwardly –  falls between both categories.  

In November 2015, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson presented the installation Ice Watchin Paris, France, as a part of the COP21 negotiations. Involved in the piece was ecological philosopher Timothy Morton, who provides us with a first-hand account of its display: The work, twelve blocks of ice harvested in Greenland and placed circular like the “visual gag” (Morton 2018:71) of a clock, melted slowly while being interacted with by interested visitors and passers-by. Eliasson and Morton insist on the work providing a deeply sensory, intimate experience between the subject and the melting blocks, that experiencing the work will “emotionalise [the ice] into our bodies” (Yalcinkaya 2018). The icebergs are presented as monuments you can interact with on levels beyond the human-centric understanding.

But do not certain aspects of Ice Watch ring a bell? Didn’t we see icebergs shipped vast distances to the European mainland before? Is it not, yet again, resources that have been funneled from former and current colonies back to Europe, broken off from nature and presented as a monument to a global elite? Are we allowed to slightly cringe when we hear the ice repeatedly presented as “100 tonnes of free-floating, glacial ice from the waters of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland […] separated from its sheets and discovered melting into the ocean” (Yalcinkaya 2018), like it’s a vintage fur coat – already dead! – and not a part of a calving process repeated since pre-human times? How do we feel when Eliasson assures us we can “kiss it” (Yalcinkaya 2018) and meditate that we indeed do care about the ice, just had not realized before – so far away! – ?

Although performative melting of ice was central to Eliasson’s Ice Watch, so was containing it. To allow for its melting to happen in a spectacularized, intellectualized way, it had to be transported from its original habitat, re-presented as Greenlandic rawness to urban intellectuals on mainland Europe. Unlike the Chilean Pavilion, Eliasson did not have to return his icebergs in embarrassment, because their melting was intended. However, as they liquified, so did a monument: One to subversive super-artistry, an enabler for the use of exotified, extracted materials.

And as we curiously observe the Artist in explorer gear battling Greenlandic storms, we are in the vicinity of the Ilulissat Icefjord, one of the largest glacier mouths in the world. Here, millennia old ice is birthed from the Greenlandic ice cap, and calves into to the ocean as majestic bergs. The display is nothing less than monumental. It attracts thousands of tourists every year, paradoxically flown in en masse to catch a glimpse of the wonder “before it’s too late” (Visit Greenland, no date).  

Ice, it appears, is in essence time. The ice cap of which bergs break free in the Ilulissat Icefjord, is up to a quarter of a million years old (UNESCO, no date). Ice melting – as both Eliasson and Alÿs explicitly convey – is like a form of clock, a temporal unit in of itself. So if we gaze over the Ilulissat Icefjord and try to grasp what we are looking at, it might reveal itself as a planetary hourglass, as ice pushes through from land to sea, and melts from ice to water.

And just there, close to this 6 km wide tunnel of time, we find ice’s greatest potential for holding time capsules: Not only representatively, but in the most physical sense. I quote here from James Bridle’s New Dark Age from 2018:

“[…] on the shores of the great Ilulissat Icefjord, the permafrost surrounding the ancient settlement of Qajaa preserves the relics of three civilizations […]. What occurred in the Greenlandic cultures is not culturally unique, but archeologically unique. […] the Arctic sites, thanks to the deep freeze of the permafrost, preserve far more information about ancient human material culture. […] They also contain traces of DNA.” (Bridle 2018:56). However, as Arctic temperatures rise and the ice accelerating melts, oxygen reaches the preserved time capsules, and bacteria starts to “feed on the organic residues, leaving nothing behind but stone” (Bridle 2018:57).

In the same way ice as a substance is neutral, so is its holding of time capsules, of history. It is the agenda-less archiver of all things human and non-human, collecting what it can and displaying it as time – as melting – allows it to. Like the horizontal annual rings of trees, glaciers and other large bodies of ice offer a vertical documentation of history, a history that is indifferent to humans, but still crucially interlinked with us.

So, if a monument in essence is a form of remembering, ice might after all be a monument in its own right: It is our monumental museum of time. And as we slowly dismantle it, the time capsules within it appear ever more clearly, for a brief moment, until they vanish from the shock of being exposed.


Bridle, James. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. London: Verso, 2018.

Korowin, Erika. "“Iceberg! Right Ahead!” (Re)Discovering Chile at the 1992 Universal Exposition in Seville, Spain.", Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 28 (2010): 48–63.

Malm, Andreas. The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. London: Verso, 2018.

Milliard, Coline: “Walks of Life”, Art Monthly vol. 337 (June 2010): 1–4.

Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2018.

UNESCO (Official Site). “Ilulissat Icefjord”. No date, retrieved 19 January 2021.

Visit Greenland (Official Site). “Ilulissat Icefjord – a beautiful natural phenomenon in Greenland”. No date, retrieved 20 January 2021.

“Why did Francis Alÿs push a block of ice for 9 hours?”, Public Delivery, no date. Retrieved 25 January 2021.

Yalcinkaya, Gunseli. “Olafur Eliasson installs giant blocks of glacial ice across London”, Dezeen, 12 December 2018, retrieved 27 January 2021.


To supplement the essay Ice – an ambiguous monument in the age of mass melting, I have created an instruction-based art work that will allow anyone to utilize ice as an engageable monument. Applicable to these pandemic times, the instruction serves as an at-home version of monument dismantling during protests and public actions.

Need: Yourself and 1 ice cube
Place: Anywhere


  1. Pick a single ice cube from a freezer

  2. Wordlessly assign the ice with a commemoration or remembrance of choice

  3. Hold it in your hand until completely melted


1. Maintain the monument: Keep the ice cube frozen