environment

New Zealander takes iceberg to the UN

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had the honour of giving the opening address at the UN Summit on Climate Change but, as Mark Jennings writes, another Kiwi had already made a dramatic statement 

While world leaders gathered in New York for the key political event on climate change, an iceberg slowly crashed down the side of the 40-storey UN headquarters. The projected image was a powerful reminder about what climate change really means. It was the work of New Zealand artist Joseph Michael.

The image was an iteration of what Michael and his team produced in 2017 when they turned the Auckland War Memorial Museum into a giant canvas (see video above).

The 360-degree projection of an Antarctic iceberg on Auckland’s iconic building was described at the time as a “cinematic collision of architecture and nature”.

Titled 'Antarctica: while you were sleeping', the work depicted the fragility of icebergs and what happens when they start to disintegrate.

It took Michael 12 months to mount the exhibition on the museum building. Due to the bureaucratic way the UN operates, he was left with six weeks to replicate it in New York.

“We finally got the go-ahead a couple of months ago then the challenge was doing it. Someone said to me 'only a New Zealander could do this' and I think that is probably right.

“I had to bring Kiwis from all parts of the world. My key creatives were living in Berlin.

"There were 15 or 16 of us with a Frenchman and a Swede thrown in.”

The compressed timeframe became a bigger problem due of the technical challenges they had to overcome, said Michael.

“It was a 40-storey building. Compare that to the two storeys of the museum and it is quite a step up, it’s literally next level. We had to project from 300 metres away, the guys had to use binoculars to line up the projectors…. even on a New York scale it is pushing the limits of what can be done.”

Kiwi Joseph Michael photographing icebergs in Antarctica. Photo: Supplied 

Then, according to Michael, the UN wanted more than just a digital iceberg.

“An iceberg is what I do, but the UN thought that huge chunks of ice crashing down was a bit confrontational and they wanted some messaging to soften this.

“We hooked up with Greta Thunberg, who had just released a track and decided we could project the lyrics onto the side of the building.”

“The UN said: ‘Yes we like it but we just feel a white English-speaking female is not representative of all cultures.’ We then spoke to Klaus Thyman from Project Pressure (UK-based environmental charity) and he came up with the idea that there are six official UN languages so we went and got six youth advocates speaking in six different languages: English, French, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin and Spanish. They shared their personal stories about climate change covering six continents with Antarctica being the seventh and the visual component.”

The messages like this one from El Mehdi Zairi from Morocco were projected onto the building: "Currently we are spending billions to help polluters with global fossil fuel subsidies – globally air pollution from fossil fuels kills more people than smoking."

So who paid for all this? The UN?

“No, the UN contributed nothing. We had to raise the money (US$400,000) ourselves and it was hard,” Michael told Newsroom.

“We thought the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) would be interested because what we were doing was great publicity for New Zealand, but I don’t think Winston Peters (Foreign Minister) likes the UN very much. We couldn’t get much traction with the Prime Minister either. I had Helen Clark coming to meetings with me but it was really tough.

“We brought the cost down by basically being Kiwis and taking a bunch of Kiwis over there. The Americans wouldn’t let us push road cases around during the day and we can only operate at night where we had to hire crew at double time. We also have to pay the UN to keep their grounds open at night. Kiwis love a challenge.”

Michael eventually raised the money with the help of local philanthropist Robert Lerner.

“I was really surprised that MFAT couldn’t see what fantastic publicity for New Zealand this was. In the end they did give us a little bit from their PR budget. I decided to help because I believe that we need to do what is right (publicise impact of climate change) and promote New Zealand,” Lerner told Newsroom.

Auckland University of Technology (where Michael is artist in residence), Air New Zealand and the Joyce Fisher Trust all chipped in.

Michael said that lighting up the UN Headquarters was an example of how art can help to drive social change.

“I enjoy big topics and I enjoy being outdoors ... I realised through my art I can contribute to the conversation.

“I know that icebergs crashing down is going to have a profound effect on people. Showing a piece like this is tapping into a different type of audience and what I see is a lot of documentaries and a lot of things happening but still there is not this change happening. I also see that when people look at it on the museum or the UN they get it on a different level, it touches their hearts. The intellectual thing of understanding the science is not working, capturing people’s hearts puts them on their own journey. You also can’t argue with an iceberg.”

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