Iluliaq: A Sublime Iceberg

Inuk Silis Høegh, Iluliaq [Iceberg] [detail] (2013), ink jet print on PVC coated scrim mesh. Original photo material: Ivars Silis, 4000 × 2800 × 2800 cm. Site-specific installation, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC

Craning my neck to view the massive, blue-green iceberg, I hear the musical ting, ting, crack of melting ice, backed by the rumble of car engines. The sweet smell of pine drifts in from the taiga garden. The summer heat is heavy.

This pleasantly disorienting experience is part of the National Gallery’s major summer exhibition, Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. Greenlandic artist Inuk Silis Høegh has created a dramatic, traffic-stopping work of art, titled Iluliaq, or “Iceberg”. His composite digital image, enlarged and printed on 56 mesh panels, covers the Gallery’s dome-shaped Great Hall. The accompanying audio recording of cracking, dripping ice is projected from speakers perched like birds in the nearby trees.

With its varied tones and textures and monumental size, Iluliaq conveys a terrible beauty. Parts of it resemble billowing sea foam, while others are smooth masses of turquoise ice or cool, jagged peaks. More than a simple replica of a real iceberg, Iluliaq is an original, imagined form, created by splicing together, manipulating and “sculpting” numerous images taken by the artist’s father, the renowned photographer Ivars Silis. “It is some sort of perverse pleasure for me,” says Høegh, “to construct my own iceberg.”

For the soundscape, the artist recorded a chunk of glacier ice melting in his bathroom. Inland glacier ice apparently makes a distinct crackling sound.

Iluliaq is a complex response to the problem of climate change. Greenlanders are very aware of fluctuations in the climate, said Høegh in a recent media interview: “But global cooling and the ice expanding would be just as big a problem, so I’m not really passing moral judgement.” Høegh prefers to see the duality in things, and his melting iceberg harbours mixed messages. “Perhaps you have sympathy with the ice because it’s melting,” he suggests. “Or is it a threat when it’s this big and it’s invading the space?”

The ambiguous meaning and powerful grandeur of Iluliaq have historical precedents in the nineteenth-century art of the sublime. In dramatic images of icebergs, mountains, volcanoes and waterfalls, painters such as Lucius O’Brien, Frederick Church and Caspar David Friedrich presented Nature as simultaneously wondrous and threatening, while also symbolic of metaphysical and spiritual quests.  

Inuk Silis Høegh created his first iceberg installation for COP 15, the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, and has done other iceberg projects that took a humorous look at the issue of cultural dominance. With a surface area of over 4,600 square metres—almost the size of 18 tennis courts—Iluliaq is Høegh’s largest work ever. By mid-summer, beginning at the tip of the iceberg and moving downward, workers will gradually remove the panels. Thus, the Great Hall will emerge from the iceberg as it “melts” and disappears completely by December 2013.

Both powerful and fragile, Iluliaq is a sublime addition to the cityscape.

Click here to view the time-lapse video of Iluliaq

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