Vanishing Ice

The art of climate change

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

By the time you read this sentence, “Melting Ice,” an impressive 10-foot-high ice sculpture built by Jyoti Duwadi that was installed last weekend at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher courtyard, may only be visible as a giant puddle of water.

But last Sunday, when my beau and I showed up for opening day of the long-awaited exhibit, “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012,” the site-specific tower of ice—which was created with approximately 120 giant blocks of ice donated by Bellingham Cold Storage—was still standing strong, even as the autumn sun whittled away at it.

If the piece was meant to remind viewers of how the world’s glaciers are melting faster than you can say “climate change,” it worked.

“I hope it will help people appreciate the beauty of ice and the big changes happening to glaciers,” Duwadi said, moments before a large chunk of melting ice broke off the top corner of the sculpture and crashed to the ground below, revealing an antler, one of the fossils the artist had planted deep inside.

Curator Barbara Matilsky had seen the ice fall from inside the museum, and came out to check on the commotion. We talked for a few minutes, and she shared that even though she’d been working on connecting art and climate change since 2005, the seed for the idea for the exhibit went back even further. Decades ago, when completing her doctoral dissertation on French sublime landscapes, she’d noted that contemporary artists were following in the footsteps of artists from centuries past who’d traveled to poles and mountain glaciers for inspiration.

“In the historical pieces, climate change wasn’t in their consciousness,” she said. “They wanted to bring about public awareness of these regions, some of which had never been seen before. Contemporary artists are bringing climate change issues to the public. What unites all these artists is that they’re blown away by the beauty of these places.”

And, after the long walk we took through “Vanishing Ice,” I feel confident in saying that those who set forth to view the works—which include a mixture of paintings, photography, book art, videos and more from approximately 50 artists from the past two centuries—will also be stupefied by the glory of the glaciers.

Hopefully, you’ll also see that the exhibit isn’t just there to beautify your life. Everywhere viewers look—whether it’s at Alexis Rockman’s 2008 painting of penguins perched precariously atop a luminous iceberg or an 1873 photograph by John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson highlighting a surreal arctic scene from explorer William Bradford’s final expedition to Greenland—they’ll be reminded that glaciers are a vital component to living on Earth.

“Losing these landscapes would be a loss not only to the planet and its wildlife, but also a major loss to culture,” Matilsky said.

She also pointed out that it’s not just the Whatcom Museum that’s onboard to make sure people pay attention to how history, art and climate change are so closely connected. Dozens of partners have joined the “Vanishing Ice” bandwagon, and events are planned throughout Whatcom County through the exhibit’s end at the beginning of March, and into May (see http://www.vanishing-ice.org for the full serving of happenings, and to preview the works).

“So many have really rallied around this exhibit,” Matilsky said. “It’s been a real catalyst for the community. People here really value the environment.”

See the Words story on p. 14 of this issue for more details about events planned around “Vanishing Ice”

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