Posted on behalf of Michael White
It stands there trapped in a frosty cage: a 30-year-old snowman in a state of bliss, its currant-shaped eyes peering out over a lopsided grin in a face dotted with frozen florets.
The glass-fronted aluminum cooler currently sits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Above the sculpture, entitled simply Snowman, the understorey citizens of a redwood forest sway in the United States’ largest living wall. The tensions are inescapable: snow, a natural process, in a totemic form, in a machined box, surviving on electricity, juxtaposed against an artificial ecosystem. The installation is a brilliant encapsulation of our mixed-up global environment now — from polar melt to green cities.
Snowman was constructed in 1987 by Swiss artistic duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss for the Römerbrücke power plant in Saarbrücken, Germany. Toying with the idea that human enterprise could prolong an inherently transient existence, they crafted a technically fascinating sculpture. Its scaffolding is, as Fischli puts it, a “skinny snowman” constructed from copper. Under controlled humidity and temperature, the snowman grows and shrinks and alters itself – one day the eyes narrower, the next a different twist to the smile. The snow also alters the chamber’s microclimate; technicians adjust the dials to prevent a runaway snowman.
It’s not all fun and games and engineering. The snowman’s remarkable longevity and technical underpinnings provoke reflections on our climate, and the possibility that we too may be forced to control our own environment.
What of the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 ⁰C? Doing so, without geoengineering, looks almost impossibly optimistic. With geoengineering, we will become the snowman, our climatic stability reliant on fiddling with dials. Only this time the outcome is uncertain and fraught with ethical dilemmas, ranging from disrupted monsoons to a rain of metallic nanoparticles.
Snowman would perish without electricity, as its intentionally obvious, preposterously long power cord reminds. Yet its built-in grin fizzes with joy. There is, after all, always the next installation. What of our own shrinking cryosphere, much of which is in rapid retreat? Technically, we can probably prevent the loss of the biggest chunks of ice, such as the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets. But I doubt that we’ll be feeling blissed-out about it.
Michael White is senior editor in physical sciences at Nature. He tweets at @MWClimateSci.
Snowman by Peter Fischli and David Weiss is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 2018.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.