These People Trapped In Water-Filled Boxes Visualize Climate Change On A Gut Level

A person sits inside an aquarium. Suddenly, the tank floods with 12 tons of water, then drains, then floods again. The lesson? It’ll be pretty hard to ignore global warming one day.

Human brains aren’t wired to worry too much about long-term problems, which is one of the reasons activists struggle to inspire urgency for fighting climate change. But where statistics and scientific papers have failed, maybe art can help. In a project called Holoscenes, artist Lars Jan is creating giant aquariums that visualize the power of climate change in a way that might get more people to pay attention.


Inside three aquariums, each about the size of an elevator, a performer sits doing an everyday activity drawn from suggestions from around the globe–eating ramen in a dorm room in Japan, pulling in a fishing net in Rwanda, shopping at a mall in Saudi Arabia. Suddenly, the small tank floods with 12 tons of water in up to a minute, then drains, then floods again, as the person inside struggles to keep doing whatever they were doing.

“There’s something really visceral about seeing bodies in water, especially water that’s moving fast,” says Jan. “There’s also something mesmerizing and hypnotic about seeing bodies inverted and weightless and move at different paces than we’re used to seeing them move.”

The sculptures look at climate change metaphorically, but also use some real data. In one choreographed sequence, the movement of the water pulses up and down in pace with rising and falling carbon dioxide levels over the last 400,000 years.

The project began as Jan looked at images of flooding in Pakistan in 2010, but quickly evolved.

Photo by Lars Jan

“I realized that maybe actually what I’m interested in is not actually the climate side, maybe I’m interested in us,” Jan says. “And our capacities to think in the long term, how that capacity evolved, and how we make decisions, how we make habits, how we change our behavior.”

As viewers look at the sculptures, he hopes the physical experience will help shift their views on climate. “For me the project has become a way to translate the complex forces at work in climate change and also at work in us into something that people can feel in their gut,” Jan explains. “It’s a visceral, visual expression. It’s also a simplification of the forces at work. But it was meant to be an entry point for a much broader audience to ask the question, ‘What is that? Why is that?'”


“I’m really interested in people rethinking the value of art in public space,” he adds. “Art not only for art’s sake, and as a fascinating aspect of our culture, but as a vehicle for changing the conversation around this issue that we can’t grapple with in another way.”

After three years of development, the tanks are ready for final construction, and crowdfunding on Kickstarter now.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.