November 27, 2013
In a courtyard outside the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, there is small piece of ice, roped off. The sight is a curious one, for sure. What is so important about this single frozen mass that it warrants special treatment?
The question is one that Barbara Matilsky, the museum’s curator of art, hopes you might ask.
The ice is a dwindling sculpture, a site-specific installation called Melting Ice by Jyoti Duwadi, that less than a month ago stood firmly, a stack of 120 ice blocks each measuring 36 by 14 by 14 inches. The artist installed the cube in timing with the opening of the museum’s latest exhibition, “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012,” and left it to melt—an elegy to glaciers around the world that are receding as a result of climate change.
“Vanishing Ice,” on display through March 2, 2014, features 75 works by 50 international artists who have made icy landscapes their subjects in the past 200-plus years. The exhibition, in its array of various mediums, conveys the beauty of alpine and polar regions—the pristine landscapes that have inspired generations of artists—at a time when rising temperatures pose a threat to them.
It also shows how artists and scientists have collaborated to learn what they can about these dramatically changing places. In a few pieces, a contemporary artist documents the very location that another had decades before, for the sake of comparison.
As the exhibition’s narrative tells, ice has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. The very first known artistic depiction of a glacier dates back to 1601. It is a watercolor depicting the topography of the Rofener Glacier in Austria by a man named Abraham Jäger. But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for artists, acting also as naturalists, to explore glaciated regions, fleeing the routine of everyday life for a jolting spiritual adventure. Their artistic renderings of these hard-to-reach locales served to educate the public, sometimes even gracing the walls of natural history museums and universities.
In the exhibition catalog, the show’s curator, Barbara Matilsky, claims that there is something sublime about these extreme places. In a sense, the snowy, glistening surfaces are ideal for reflecting our own thoughts. “Through the centuries,” she writes, “artists have demonstrated the limitless potential of alpine and polar landscapes to convey feelings, ideas and messages.”
The idea for “Vanishing Ice” actually came to Matilsky, who wrote her doctoral thesis 30 years ago on some of the earliest French artists to capture glaciers and the Northern Lights, when she began to notice a critical mass of artists working today heading off to high peaks, Antarctica and the Arctic. She drew some connections in her mind’s eye. Like their 18th, 19th and 20th century predecessors, these artists are often part of government-sponsored expeditions, rubbing shoulders with scientists. And then, as now, and their work reaches into scientific discussion as visuals that document scientific observations.
The recent art tends to illustrate the disheartening findings of climate experts. David Breashears, an American photographer and five-time climber of Mount Everest, for instance, committed himself to what he calls the Glacier Research Imaging Project. For the endeavor, he “retraced the steps of some of the world’s greatest mountain photographers. . . over the past 110 years across the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau.” Both his photograph West Rongbuk Glacier, taken in 2008, and Edward Oliver Wheeler’s record of the same vista, from a topographical survey of Everest in 1921, are included in the exhibition. The then-now comparison captures the glacier’s 341-foot retreat.
American James Balog approaches his timelapse photography with a similar degree of precision. His Extreme Ice Survey, also represented in the exhibition, strings together the images routinely snapped by 26 cameras aimed at more than a dozen glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska and the western United States. The footage speeds up, for our eyes, the melting that is occurring in these regions.
“Vanishing Ice” has been four years in the making, more if you consider Matilsky’s introduction to this genre of art in the nascent stages of her career. The curator of art at the Whatcom Museum composed a wish list of paintings, prints and photographs and negotiated the loans from institutions worldwide. What resulted is an impressive body of work, including pieces from the likes of Jules Verne, Thomas Hart Benton, Ansel Adams and Alexis Rockman.
The Whatcom Museum will host the exhibition through March 2, 2014, and, from there, it will travel to the El Paso Museum of Art, where it will be on display from June 1 to August 24, 2014.
Patricia Leach, executive director of the museum, sees “Vanishing Ice” as a powerful tool. “Through the lens of art, the viewer can start thinking about the broader issue of climate change,” she says. “Believe it or not, there are still people out there who find this to be a controversial topic. We thought that this would open up the dialogue and take away the politics of it.”
October 7, 2013
There have been some interesting creatures popping up in the Arctic. Canadian hunters have found white bears with brown tints—a cross between Ursus maritimus, the polar bear, and Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly. A couple of decades ago, off the coast of Greenland, something that appeared to be half-narwhal, half-beluga surfaced, and much more recently, Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise mixes have been swimming near British Columbia.
In “The Arctic Melting Pot,” a study published in the journal Nature in December 2010, Brendan Kelly, Andrew Whiteley and David Tallmon claim, ”These are just the first of many hybridizations that will threaten polar diversity.” The biologists speculated a total of 34 possible hybridizations (pdf).
Arctic sea ice is melting, and fast—at a rate of 30,000 square miles per year, according to NASA. And, some scientists predict that the region will be ice-free within about 40 years. “Polar bears are spending more time in the same areas as grizzlies; seals and whales currently isolated by sea ice will soon be likely to share the same waters,” says Kelly and his colleagues in the study. Naturally, there will be some interbreeding.
Such mixed offspring are hard to find. But, thanks to technology and the creative mind of artist Nickolay Lamm, they’re not hard to envision.
Say a harp seal (Phoca groenandica) mates with a hooded seal (Cystophora crostata), or a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) breeds with a right whale (Eubalaena spp.). What would the offspring look like? Dina Spector, an editor at Business Insider, was curious and posed the question to Lamm.
This past spring, Lamm, who creates forward-looking illustrations from scientific research, produced scenes depicting the effect of sea level rise on coastal U.S. cities over the next few centuries, based on data reported by Climate Central, for the news outlet. Now, building off Spector’s question, he has created a series of digitally manipulated photographs—his visions of several supposed Arctic hybrids.
“In that Nature report, it was just a huge list of species which could cross breed with one another. I feel that images speak a lot more,” says Lamm. “With these, we can actually see the consequences of climate change.”
Lamm first selected several of the hybridizations listed in the study for visual examination. He then picked a stock photo of one of the two parent species (shown on the left in each pairing), then digitally manipulated it to reflect the shape, features and coloring of the other species (on the right). Blending these, he derived a third photograph of their potential young.
To inform his edits in Photoshop, the artist looked at any existing photographs of the crossbred species. “There are very, very few of them,” he notes. He also referred to any written descriptions of the hybrids and, enlisting the help of wildlife biologist Elin Pierce, took into account the dominant features of each original species. In some cases, Lamm took some artistic merit. He chose to illustrate the narwhal-beluga mix, for example, with no tusk, when Pierce suggested that the animal may or may not have a very short tooth protruding from its mouth.
Biologists are concerned about the increasing likelihood of this crossbreeding. “As more isolated populations and species come into contact, they will mate, hybrids will form and rare species are likely to go extinct,” reports Nature.
Many critics of Lamm’s series have argued that these hybrids may just be a product of evolution. But, to that, Lamm says,”Climate change is a result of us humans and [this is] not just some natural evolution that would happen without us.”
About the project itself, he adds, “I am personally concerned about the environment, and this is just my way of expressing my worry about climate change.”
September 16, 2013
Ocean acidification has taken up an unlikely mascot: the shelled pteropod. While “charismatic megafauna,” the large creatures that pull at our heartstrings, are typically the face of environmental problems—think polar bears on a shrinking iceberg and oil-slicked pelicans—these tiny sea snails couldn’t be more different. They don’t have visible eyes or anything resembling a face, diminishing their cute factor. They can barely be seen with the human eye, rarely reaching one centimeter in length. And the changes acidification has on them are even harder to see: the slow disintegration of their calcium carbonate shells.
Even without the threat of more acidic seas—caused by carbon dioxide dissolving into seawater—pteropods (also called sea butterflies) look fragile, as if their translucent shells could barely hold up against the rough ocean. This fragility is what attracted artist Cornelia Kavanagh to sculpt the miniscule animals. Her series, called “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” will be on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall starting September 17.
“By making visible that which is essentially invisible, my pteropod sculptures could dramatize the threat of ocean acidification in a refreshing new way, causing the pteropod to become a surrogate for a problem of far-reaching implications,” says Kavanagh.
Ocean acidification is expected to affect a panoply of ocean organisms, but shelled animals like corals, clams and pteropods may be hardest hit. This is because the animals have more trouble crafting the molecular building blocks they use to construct their shells in more acidic water.
Pteropods and other shelled animals that live near the poles have an even bigger challenge: they live in cold water, which is historically more acidic than warm water. Acidification is expected to hit animals in colder regions first and harder—and it already has. Just last year, scientists described pteropod shells dissolving in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. These animals aren’t just struggling to build their shells; the more acidic water is breaking their shells apart.
While Kavanagh’s sculptures were made before this discovery, she still tried to portray the future effects of acidification by sculpting several species of pteropod in various stages of decay. Some of her pteropods are healthy, with whole shells and “wings”—actually the snail’s foot adapted to flap in the water—outspread. Others have holes in their shells with folded wings, so the viewer can almost see them sinking to the seafloor, defeated.
Before starting this project, Kavanagh had never heard of pteropods. She wanted to make art reflecting the impacts of climate change, and was searching for an animal with an appealing shape for abstraction. One day she stumbled upon the image of a pteropod and was sold. She found the animals both beautiful and evocative of the work of Modernist artists she admires, such as Miro, Arp and Kandinsky.
She based her aluminum and bronze sculptures off of pictures she found in books and on the internet, blown up more than 400 times their real size. But when she finished sculpting, she panicked. “While I tried to symbolize the danger pteropods faced by interpreting their forms,” Kavanagh says, “I became increasingly concerned that my sculptures might be too abstract to be recognizable.”
She contacted Gareth Lawson, a biological oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who studies the impacts of acidification on pteropods. To her relief, when he looked at pictures of her sculptures, he was able to easily identify each down to the species. After that, the pair teamed up, writing a book together and curating a show in New York, called “Charismatic Microfauna,” with scientific information alongside the sculptures.
“What drew me to [Cornelia's] work in particular is the way in which, through their posture and form, as a series her sculptures illustrate pteropods increasingly affected by ocean acidification,” says Lawson. “Through her medium she is ‘hypothesizing’ how these animals will respond to the changed chemistry of the future ocean. And that’s exactly what my collaborators and I do, albeit through science.”
April 17, 2013
Artist Fujiko Nakaya believes in the transformative power of fog.
The first time she realized that her fog sculptures could change a person’s memory was in 1976 during the run of Earth Talk, a fog sculpture made for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia. After seeing her sculpture, an electrician told her how he had taken his family to see the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The mountain was fogged in at first and he couldn’t see it, but the fog cleared and the view of the mountain was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“The instant he saw the fog it changed his experience, and I liked that very much,” explained Nakaya. It was then she understood that her sculptures could feed back to personal experience and improve a person’s feeling about fog. After the electrician’s story, she was determined to reach more people, and not just those in the art world.
For forty years, Nakaya has been creating public fog sculptures all over the world. Currently, she has seven projects going in five countries. Fog Bridge is her first in San Francisco, and is one of three inaugural outdoor artworks created for the new waterfront home of the Exploratorium.
The museum, which mixes science and art in its exhibits, was previously housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, but its new site—three times as big as the last, and at Pier 15—opens its doors to the public today. The 150-foot long Fog Bridge enshrouds pedestrians with fog for ten minutes every half hour; it will be lit at night, and so promises to be a spectacular sight. The bridge is located within the free, 1.5-acre outdoor area that encircles the Exploratorium and features artwork that honors the environment of the bay.
Nine days before the grand opening, Nakaya leaned against a railing to watch test runs of Fog Bridge. The 79-year-old artist was dressed comfortably in layers of black, though the day was warm enough for shorts. Coit Tower rose out of Telegraph Hill against a clear blue sky behind the bridge. Nakaya didn’t have to pull any wizard-like levers to release bursts of fog; the system is pre-programmed and designed to interact with real-time weather data. Each side of the bridge is divided into three sections and controlled by programmed valves in the pump room. For example, an eastern wind will prompt the valves to make fog on the east side of the bridge only.
In this way, an invisible wind is made visible with brush strokes of fog. The process starts with four pumps that force high-pressure water into pipes studded with 800 petite nozzles. At the tip of each nozzle is a hole six thousandths of an inch wide where the pressurized water is forced and meets a pin that explodes the water into droplets 15 to 20 microns wide. Nakaya developed the technology in 1970 with physicist Thomas Mee, and Mee Industries continues to use the patented technology for industrial and agricultural applications.
Nakaya’s fog is, of course, a simulation of the misty blankets that spread over the “cool gray city of love” each summer when cold oceanic surface water interacts with warm moist air offshore. As warm air rises over the inland valleys, the fog is pulled through the Golden Gate, providing needed summer moisture to coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.
“I hope I’m doing homage to San Francisco fog,” said Nakaya adding, “that the bay fog will devour this fog sometimes.”
The Exploratorium sees itself as a place for tourists to learn about the Bay Area’s land and seascapes, and so some of its displays and artwork educate visitors about things like the tide cycle and fog. San Francisco’s fog, however, has declined 33 percent in the last 60 years, according to a study published in 2010 by UC Berkeley biology professor Todd E. Dawson and climate analyst Jim Johnstone, and the trend is expected to continue as climate changes. Dawson says they aren’t sure of the reason behind the decline, but that it may be due to warmer sea surface temperatures. “Fog formation is really about the contrast between temperatures,” he says. “If you warm the water up, the temperature difference goes down and the fog formation goes down with it.”
That said, Nakaya adds that fog always exists as water vapor even when we don’t see it. Only when conditions change is it visual.
In the first week that the museum is open, tens of thousands of people will walk across the bridge and be enveloped by fog. The sensation, I imagine, might feel like walking on clouds. Nakaya, reportedly, is particularly intrigued by the way that fog obscures one’s sight and heightens the other senses as a result. Perhaps this is why the artist believes that fog can improve memories and change thinking. “If you have even one little experience with fog, you start to see things differently,” said Nakaya.
The artist watched the artificial fog pour out of the northeast quadrant of the bridge where it hovered for a windless moment. “Nature is so complex. We can’t understand its complexity,” said Nakaya. “If you just tap one spot it will open up so many things and enlarge imaginations.”
Fog Bridge can be experienced at the Exploratorium through September 16, 2013.
March 21, 2013
What happens when you lose your grip on the horizon? How much does it warp your sense of scale? One trek on the 97-square-mile Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia and Caleb Cain Marcus was hooked by these questions of perspective. With that experience, in January 2010, the New York City-based photographer launched a two-year odyssey, documenting, in his own minimalist style, glaciers all around the world—in Iceland, Alaska, New Zealand and Norway.
Marcus shares 3o photographs taken in his travels in his latest book, A Portrait of Ice. The images—three of which were recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are “eerily gorgeous and unusual,” writes Marvin Heiferman, a known critic and curator, in an essay featured in the book. “Instead of picturing monumental walls of ice that advance over and disrupt what lies beneath, or icebergs that break away from glaciers to float majestically, if threateningly, at sea, these photographs suggest that glaciers cover the earth’s surface lightly, like a sheet, rather than bearing down upon it,” he adds. The comparison that Heiferman makes later in the essay is compelling: “The jagged rocks, ridges and pinnacles that poke through the frigid surfaces don’t register as being particularly dangerous, but more like the eccentrically rendered landforms you might soar over in a dream or in the elegant flight-simulation of a video game.”
Intrigued, I recently had the opportunity to interview Marcus by phone. We discussed some of the thoughts driving the project and his process:
When you exhibit the series, you like the photographs to measure 43 inches by 54 inches. Why do you like to work in this large-scale format?
Obviously, the glaciers themselves are quite large. I think it is easier to get immersed in something when it is large. I think small makes things potentially more intimate. If it is small, you are required to go up close to it and inspect it. If it is large, you can sort of be overwhelmed by it.
What inspired your initial trip to Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia?
I was visiting someone in Buenos Aires, and then we took a side trip and flew outside of El Calafate, which is a small town in Patagonia. Near El Calafate was Perito Moreno. It seemed like a good opportunity to go and visit a glacier. I grew up in Colorado, and I have a love for the mountains and open space, which I don’t get much of in New York.
How did you explore the glacier? What did you get to do?
I just hiked around on it. Many glaciers are covered with snow, so you don’t really see them as glaciers as much, at least I don’t, because you are not seeing the ice. You are seeing the snow, which is layering on top of the ice. This was probably the first hard-ice glacier I was on.
What was it about the experience and the photographs that you shot that really inspired you to spend the next two years photographing glaciers around the world?
The ice landscape was certainly one that I hadn’t visited before. I think that many people never really get a chance to visit it or never choose to visit it. Most of us have seen some form of a desert and a forest and an ocean, but we haven’t really just seen ice. It is quite a different ecosystem, and one that fascinates me quite a bit. Everything is so open and so expansive. I think it was that feeling of expanse and emptiness and solitude, on a personal level, that made me want to be there.
When I took the pictures, I had this idea to try to see what would happen if the horizon disappeared. Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd and something that took me a few years to realize. You are missing that. It is such a grounding presence for people to be able to see the horizon. I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it. I thought, okay, if I get rid of the horizon or I try to, how is that going to affect the feeling of the picture? You lose a sense of scale.
Many of the images are vertical, with mostly sky and then the surface of the glacier occupying just a small portion at the bottom. Why did you choose to compose them this way?
I think there are three general options. One would be that you would have about half glacier and half sky. I think that would be too balanced. Then, you could have much more glacier than sky, which would work, but it would produce something that is much denser. I didn’t really feel like the glaciers were so dense or so heavy, even though they are so massive. I wanted to create a feeling of more openness; I think if you have more sky than glacier that helps to do it. It helps to make it float a little more. Having just this small amount of density of color at the bottom, contrasted by that wide open space, also creates a balance in a way. Because the sky is more empty, they still sort of take up equal weight on the image.
Do you want the viewer to lose perspective?
I would say probably most people looking at it wouldn’t realize that there is no horizon—at least, not consciously. But I think that one of the things it does is it makes it feel less familiar. When something is less familiar, then we look at it more closely, instead of just glancing at it and saying, “Oh, I know what that is. It is a glacier, or that’s a tree or a person or an apartment building.” If it has a little bit of a twist, then I think people spend a little more time or there is a little more examining. Maybe there is more potential that there is some effect on them, which would be ideal.
How did you think about color?
In terms of the colors of the glaciers, whether they are blue or gray or more cyan, I didn’t have too much choice. I was looking for the glaciers with more color. There are a few that are almost black and white, which are in Iceland. That was after the volcano erupted a couple of years ago, so those have the mist and the ash from the volcano. It doesn’t give it an intense color, it is giving it a very subtle color.
Did you have certain criteria for the glaciers and locations that you picked?
That was one of the challenging aspects. You never really knew what you would get. I would look at topographic images and satellite images. I would talk to other climbers and get a general sense of what a glacier I was going to might look like. But whenever I got there, it was all a surprise.
I was looking for texture and color, so that they had some kind of resonance, some personality. In the book, there are nine different glaciers. I probably went to more than 20 glaciers, so only a small number of them are represented. The other ones, either I wasn’t on the ball or else the glacier wasn’t on the ball. Somehow the communication between the two of us didn’t work out.
I imagine there were a bunch of logistics that went into these trips.
In terms of getting to the glaciers, pretty much all of them required a hike. I kayaked into some of them and took a helicopter once or twice. Most of the time I had a guide. Of course, the guides are there to find access to the glacier and then also as a safety measure or policy. In that regard, they want to make sure that you come back in one piece, which is a good thing, but it also means that they always try to keep reins on you. I don’t like having someone holding me back. I am always running around, and they are always yelling at me. It would usually take a few days for our relationship to sort of coalesce into something smoother. There would be some friction in the beginning. Then, after a few days, we would have a better understanding of each other.
The guides were quite resourceful in terms of their information. I actually met with a few scientists on various glaciers. In Norway, I met with a couple of them measuring the speed of the flow of the glacier. So, I would always take the opportunity to talk to them.
In your own essay in A Portrait of Ice, you write, “The Inuit elders say the melting of the ice is the land crying out in pain. Now we must listen.” The statement implies an activism on your part. Is that one of your intentions? Do you want viewers to care more about the environment and about the melting of glaciers?
I think photographing glaciers I was pretty aware that even if there wasn’t too much of that sentiment that it would be there in the background. I feel very close to the earth or however one wants to term it. I think that we have more than half of the people living in cities now in the U.S. With that, we are losing an awareness for the natural environment. Whether these [photographs] bring people closer to the environment or not, I don’t really know. I certainly think that if people were more connected to it, that they would act differently in their lives. A lot of the people who make decisions on a high level are, I think, even more detached because they are so immersed in running corporations or in making more money. I think that the planet suffers because of that, and so do we.
These images are excerpted from the book, A Portrait of Ice, published by Damiani.