The Artist in the Age of the Anthropocene – Olafur Eliasson

By Fiepke Sofie van Niel.

A tow truck driving through wild Icelandic landscape, on its way to remove big pieces of ice that have been washed up on the shore of a black sand beach. The video that displays this phenomenon explains to the viewer that these pieces of ice are former parts of the glacier Vatnajökull [1]. It feels like watching an intervention of humans into nature in a place where they should not intervene, just like the act of cutting down parts of the rainforest. However, the viewer is watching something completely different: a video on the process that preceded the execution of Olafur Eliasson’s Your Waste of Time, as part of a web series for MoMA PS1 [2]. While watching these pieces of ice being shipped off to places where they don’t belong, the following question started to take shape in my head: how far can an artist go, with intervening in nature, for the sake of art?

Your Waste of Time has been on display in the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider in 2006 [3]. The blocks of ice are exhibited in a refrigerated space where the audience can walk around and is allowed to be in direct contact with the ice. The artwork explores the concept of temporality and the way humans can intervene with this temporality. While explaining the choice for these pieces of ice, Eliasson talks about how they represent around 2500 years of ecological history since the glacier was formed this many years ago. By touching it, we also intervene with its temporality. The ice will melt, so the layers of ice that have been building up as a part of the glacier will slowly disappear [4]. The aim of giving the temporality of glacial ice a concrete image is making the disappearance of ice caps tangible for the audience. Eliasson mentions the huge discrepancy that exists in our society between having a lot of knowledge about a subject and actually experiencing it. Exhibiting the pieces of ice will narrow this gap down and lets the audience physically experience big environmental issues. Thus, touching the ice not only makes layers of time disappear but also has the consequence of actually experiencing the nature slipping through your hands and disappearing forever. According to Eliasson, this feeling of becoming aware of the fact that your actions matter will raise more awareness on climate change [5].

While the aim of this artwork is supposed to work in the favour of environmental issues and provide a better understanding of the consequences of human interventions in nature, we also have to question how far an artist can take his own actions in order to make a statement. An environmental artwork being displayed in a refrigerated space that needs loads of energy and thus pollutes the earth by itself contains a huge paradox. I would like to elaborate on the idea that the act of removing the pieces of ice at first seemed like an intervention into nature that was harming the environment.

In 2009, Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things was published. In short, Bennett argues that both material and immaterial things all are live and interconnected. Objects have the ability to act, even if they are inanimate. This dismisses humans from their autonomous position [6]. By this, she also means that everything is constantly in motion and in process and nothing is passive in itself. Bennett exemplifies this by mentioning how omega-3 acids can easily alter our moods [7]. She thus ascribes agency to all sorts of material and immaterial things; they become subjects rather than objects that humans can act upon. Vibrant Matter also has a political aspect to it. Bennett states her guiding question in this part of the book as following:

‘How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman)bodies?’[8]

Thinking in terms of the matters Bennett discusses, we can have a critical look towards Your Waste of Time. If we think of Bennett’s guiding question we can question if disrespecting the agency of the pieces of ice will really make us think about climate change. Obviously, the aim of the artwork is to show the audience the damage of human interventions in nature. But, this artwork gives complete agency to humans and thus makes the pieces of ice objects inferior to human superiority. It keeps us in this vicious circle where all we know is humans standing in the centre of the environment and are in complete power. Thus, it only keeps our Anthropocentric worldview alive. Considering the fact that humans have done enough damage to the environment, it might be time to take a step back and learn more about the power of nature in itself. Treating the pieces of ice as subjects and respecting their agency might result in different political responses to public problems. We might live in another world in the future if, as Bennett puts it in her guiding question, we are going to take the vitality of (nonhuman)bodies seriously [9].


[1] Eliasson, MoMA PS1 – Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Waste of Time”, 0.05.

[2] ‘MoMA PS1 - Olafur Eliasson’s "Your Waste of Time"’. Website Jean Coleman.

[3] ‘Exhibitions’. Website Olafur Eliasson.

[4] Eliasson, ‘Your Waste of Time’. Website Olafur Eliasson.

[5] Eliasson, MoMA PS1 – Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Waste of Time”, 2.49-3.44.

[6] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 6.

[7] Ibid., vii.

[8] Ibid., viii.

[9] Ibid.


Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Eliasson, Olafur. ‘Exhibitons’. Olafur Eliasson. https://olafureliasson.net/archive/exhibition (consulted October 7, 2018).

Eliasson, Olafur. MoMA PS1 – Olafur Eliasson’s Your waste of time. Digital file. 2014. http://jeanenterprises.net/ywot/ (consulted October 7, 2018).

Eliasson, Olafur. ‘Your waste of time’. Olafur Eliasson. http://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK100564/your-waste-of-time (consulted October 7, 2018).