• Climate
  • climate

The Story Behind TIME’s New Optical Illusion Climate Change Cover

8 minute read

Time has released more than 5,000 covers since our founding almost a century ago. The new issue’s is the first one where the viewer’s eyes create the image.

In the run-up to the COP27 climate conference—the U.N. meeting at which global leaders will negotiate the next steps toward managing that crisis—we sought a cover image that could speak to the intensity of the current climate situation. So we turned the cover (or rather, covers) over to one of the world’s most prominent contemporary artists, Olafur Eliasson.

Eliasson creates sculptures and large-scale installations that employ elemental materials such as light, water, and air to enhance the viewer’s experience of the ordinary. To accomplish the effect on TIME’s cover, the Icelandic-Danish artist used a technique called afterimaging. Following the instructions on the page—staring at the green heart for 12 seconds and then flipping to the next page—allows your eye to “re-imagine” our overheated planet in the greens and blues that are the colors of a healthy earth.

Read more: Olafur Eliasson’s Poem to Accompany His New TIME Cover

“An afterimage is basically created within your own perceptual apparatus—by your eyes and brain, that is—whenever you look at something. You don’t generally see or notice them unless you look at something for a long time and then turn away to look at a blank surface,” he says. “The colors that you then see—the colors that are produced on your retinas—are, generally speaking, the complements of the colors printed in the image: blue for orange, red for green, and so on.”

Eliasson applied that optical illusion to an image of the globe, which has been tilted to show a face of the earth that is different from the view most readers will be familiar with, to “heighten the strangeness of the image.” Looking twice, after all, is what Eliasson’s cover asks us all to do. And it’s no coincidence that the visual anchor at the center of it all is a heart. “This image is not actually there on the page, but inside you,” he says. “You create it. You make the world.”

He spoke to TIME about the thinking behind the cover.

TIME: Can you point to a singular moment when you discovered that you could tell the story of the climate and nature through your art? What do you love most about working with the materials of light, color, and nature?

Eliasson: It’s true that I did not initially begin my practice as an artist by working on the topics of climate change and the environment. Like many people of my generation, I grew up taking nature for granted as something unchanging. My interest in working with materials like light, color, water, fog, and other natural phenomena grew out of my desire to dematerialize the art object, to make things that were less physical than, say, ephemeral or atmospheric. I was very interested in the larger context that surrounds an exhibition and in expanding what we consider to be art and whatnot.

In 2003, around the time that I created The Weather Project—the large artificial sun in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, in London—I began thinking about the weather, about how it affects our lives, and our moods, and our experiences, and how we in turn affect it. From there, it was not a great leap to thinking about how we are affecting the planet as a whole through human-induced climate change. My friend Jonathan Safran Foer said it quite succinctly with his book title: We Are the Weather.

When TIME’s declared the “Endangered Earth” to be Person—or rather Planet—of the Year for 1988, the cover of the magazine featured a plastic-wrapped globe by artist Christo. In the 30-plus years since, despite a trove of urgent scientific facts, the issue of climate change has still struggled to gain global acceptance. Why do you think that is? Can the urgency of climate change be communicated more effectively? Why do you think some of the world’s leaders aren’t grasping the immediacy of the situation?

A lot has been written and said about this topic over the years, and my thinking about it has especially been inspired by the research of Elke Weber, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. She and others have pointed out how certain biases in the way we think affect our actions and keep us from acting to do what needs to be done: that we prefer to maintain the status quo rather than to change things simply because of the uncertainties of acting, or else that we think by doing one thing, we have done enough, whereas climate action requires us to change many of our habits on many different levels, from what we eat to how we travel and to how we build our cities. These are changes on an individual level, but especially on a systematic, societal level.

There is a lot of evidence that fear-based communication about the dangers of climate change are not as effective as communicating concrete actions, but this is still the main way that the climate emergency is communicated in the media. I think the experiences of the pandemic, and the struggles to enact comprehensive, science-based policies to combat the virus, have taught us a lot about the limits and possibilities for enacting change to habits on a large scale. I do think that you need to give people a positive image of the future that they are working towards—a more equitable, sustainable world for all, both humans and non-humans alike.

I love that your work makes the viewer experience something—whether it’s the sun inside the Tate Modern or huge chunks of glacial ice for Ice Watch. Can you talk about the importance you place on actually experiencing nature and the climate through your art? And how do you experience it?

There is something extraordinary about the direct experience that art can offer at a moment when so many of us encounter the world via digital devices. Whether it is a live music performance, theater show, or art exhibition, there is something about being in one’s body at a certain place and at a certain time, sharing an experience with others that cannot be replaced by our devices—as we learned during the pandemic. Especially when you think about something as large-scale and seemingly distant as climate change, it is often precisely this experiential level that is missing in motivating action. If you can provide a concrete, tactical experience of climate change—as I tried to do with Ice Watch in 2014, 2015, and 2018—you can bring home the reality of the threat to people who only know it via the media, via news and photographs. Of course, today things are a bit different than they were even four or five years ago, when I last brought Greenlandic ice to let it melt in public space, in London. Now I think more and more people have direct experience of the effects of climate change—whether it’s more powerful storms and flooding, or extreme heat and droughts and forest fires.

In the afterimage you created for TIME’s cover, what would you like the reader to experience?

What I find so fascinating about afterimages is that they are created not externally by me, but internally, in the eyes of the person observing them. In fact, you always have and create afterimages, whether you are aware of this fact or not. Here it is made explicit; you are asked to bring something to the image on the cover of the magazine. It is for you to complete. It is my hope that viewers take away from this some idea of how much their own perception of the world contributes to making it. And if we can see the world anew—or even just our representations of the world—then we can think about it in a new way too, and I hope even change it.

What gives you hope about the future of our planet and the climate?

I recently had the profound pleasure of working with many kids and young people on a project called Earth Speakr, which we created on the occasion of the German presidency of the European Council, in 2020. For this I created an app that allowed kids to record spoken messages in which they talk about their hopes and dreams for the future of the planet. Then, using augmented-reality technology, they could project an animated face onto any object in their environment, so that the object they had chosen could speak their message for them. We took their messages and shared them with politicians and other powerful adults to show them the kids’ thoughts and concerns about the state of the planet. It was deeply inspiring to see how articulate they are in voicing their ideas. I have the feeling that the young people today are thinking very much from a standpoint of the future—unlike my generation, which often seeks refuge in history and visions from the past. This gives me great hope for the future of our planet.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com