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Art - Issue #5

Melting Eternity

Words by Anna Souter

The ice of the polar regions was once seen as a symbol of eternity and stasis. Today, as works by contemporary artists reveal, it has become a powerful metaphor for the changing climate.

Once upon a colder time, there were two children, Kai and Gerda, who lived on the top floor of two houses with windows that overlooked the same narrow alley. They could step into each other’s homes across the gutters, where they were growing a garden of roses and vegetables.

But as Kai grew up, he grew colder and stopped caring about the white roses and the tiny, sweet carrots and the bitter salad leaves growing high above the street. For a little piece of a magic mirror had lodged itself in his eye, making him see only the bad things in the world. One winter, Kai was enticed away by the beautiful snow queen. She froze his heart with a kiss and promised he would leave her icy palace only if he could spell out the word “eternity” using shards of ice.

Meanwhile, Gerda set out on a long quest through the snowy lands of Scandinavia, hoping to rescue Kai. After many trials, she found him in the middle of a frozen lake. In her love and pity, she ran to him and held him close and sobbed. She cried so hard that her tears washed the mirror shard out of Kai’s eye and he suddenly saw the beauty of the world around him. He caught Gerda up in his arms and they danced together, scattering the shards of ice with their feet.

When they looked down, they saw that the splinters had come to rest in the very word he was trying to spell: eternity. They were free.

Katie Paterson, Vatnajökull (the sound of), 2007-08. (Photographs copyright Katie Paterson)

The story of the snow queen is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s longest and most complex tales. Although Kai and Gerda escape, the implication is that the snow queen and her icy kingdom remain in a permanently frozen state - a beautiful and threatening presence to haunt future stories.

This represents a once widely held view of ice and of the frozen reaches of the north. For the Romantic artists and poets, icy regions were permanent features to be feared and revered, as well as foes to be conquered. For the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s 1798 poem, for example, a voyage in the Antarctic plays out like a journey through an icy underworld, where the shooting of an albatross condemns the crew to a slow, cold death and a supernatural afterlife.

In the 19th century, the far north and south were mysterious places where whole ships, crews, and cargos could disappear. Most famously, in 1845 John Franklin captained the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a mission to discover the Northwest Passage - never to be seen again.

In Caspar David Friedrich’s 1823-24 painting The Sea of Ice, the capsized hull of a ship is only just visible among giant shards of a broken-up ice sheet. Pushed into terrifying peaks by the formidable forces of the cold and the sea, the ice forms a dramatic monolith, presumably entombing the people on board the unlucky vessel forever. Friedrich’s painting is emblematic of the Arctic sublime - a Romantic aesthetic of bare, threatening landscapes, where sometimes a lone brave man is seen to tread.

‘In an age of climate breakdown, satellite imaging and nature documentaries, we are more likely to imagine ice as something that melts than something permanent.’

The Arctic sublime was arguably the ultimate Romantic patriarchal and colonialist fantasy: the lone male artist-explorer pressing his foot into the “virgin” snow of unexplored, empty lands (Indigenous inhabitants were generally evicted from these visions, or else stereotyped as noble savages).

Mary Shelley implicitly criticises this fantasy in her 1818 novel Frankenstein (although her Arctic is equally empty of Indigenous peoples). The novel is framed through a series of letters from ship’s captain Robert Walton, an ambitious young aristocrat who is willing to risk his life to explore the Arctic. Walton picks up Victor Frankenstein, half-dead on a floating ice sheet, whose own ambitious, isolationist explorations into the origins of life have resulted in the deaths of everyone he loves. Eventually, Walton proves himself superior to Frankenstein by choosing the lives of his crew and his wish to see his sister again over his own ambition. Empathy and domesticity, Shelley suggests, are better than the destructive desire to be alone represented by the eternal ice of the Arctic.

Today, the idea of ice as eternity no longer predominates in the European cultural imagination, let alone those parts of the world with more
temperate climates. In an age of climate breakdown, satellite imaging and nature documentaries, we are more likely to imagine ice as something that melts than something permanent. Ice is always in transition between solid and liquid, flowing between states in an ongoing metamorphosis.

Katie Paterson, Vatnajökull (the sound of), 2007-08. (Photographs copyright Katie Paterson)

Most of us are aware that seasonal ice cover in the Arctic is shrinking, with ice-free Arctic summers expected by 2050. We’ve seen the films of hungry polar bears attempting to catch seals in warming seas. We’ve seen the news stories about how melting Siberian permafrost caused the collapse of an oil tank, dying local rivers red with spilled diesel. When it comes to ice, we’re no longer sure of the ground under our feet.

In 2007, UK artist Katie Paterson began a project working with Vatnajökull, a glacier in Iceland that is also the largest ice cap in Europe. Her piece, Vatnajökull (the sound of), consisted of a live telephone line installed via a submerged microphone under one of the glacier’s outlets. By ringing the telephone number, anyone in the world could call up the glacier and listen to the sound of it melting. The piece gives the glacier agency: although we might usually conceive of Vatnajökull melting passively and distantly under the effects of anthropogenic climate change, the phone line allows the glacier to speak for itself, as it were, bringing its plight straight into the listener’s everyday experience.

Paterson also turns to Icelandic glaciers in her 2007 work, Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull. Sound recordings of these glaciers melting were pressed into three records, each of which were then cast in ice using the meltwater from the corresponding glacier. The frozen discs were played simultaneously on three turntables until they melted entirely away. This intervention in the ongoing dissolution of the glaciers creates a space for discussion about broader interventions in society that might stop or slow their ultimate disappearance. Paterson’s actions remind us that ice and water have a two-way relationship: melting is not always inevitable.

Katie Paterson, Vatnajökull (the sound of), 2007-08. Installation view Modern Art Oxford. (Photographs copyright Katie Paterson)

Melting ice has become a widely recognised symbol for global warming - so much so that the nuance of ice as an artistic material and natural phenomenon is easily lost. Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo has been producing her work, Minimum Monument, in public spaces around the world since 2005. The piece consists of thousands of small human-shaped ice sculptures, which are arranged around well-known landmarks and left to melt.

The project was originally intended as a critical engagement with the presence of permanent monuments in urban environments, but as the artist notes on her website, the work has been adopted by the environmental movement as a powerful metaphor for the effects of climate breakdown: by causing the ice to melt, humans are also jeopardising their own futures.

Néle Azevedo, Minimum Monument in Roma, Italy, 2020. (Photograph copyright Néle Azevedo)

Néle Azevedo, Minimum Monument in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan, 2003. (Photograph copyright Néle Azevedo)

For UK artist Hannah Rowan, ice is a material with which to reflect on the contrast between fast-paced human activity and the slower rhythms of natural processes. As well as considering the aesthetics of water in its different states, her work embodies and recreates ephemeral natural systems. Her site-specific installations utilise a scientific functionality and aesthetic, with copper piping, plastic tubing, crocodile clips, and wires emerging from tanks. In these pieces, water causes the build-up of mineral deposits or condenses onto chilled glass surfaces or melts from chunks of ice suspended on hooks.

She encourages viewers to consider how we relate to bodies of water - and to the notion that our bodies are primarily made up of water. Here, she draws on the theory of hydrofeminism put forward by writer Astrida Neimanis (see page 40). For Rowan, water as it passes through its various states is both symbolic of, and a literal representation of, how we are embedded in the cycles of nature.

Much of her recent work is inspired by her participation in an artist-led research expedition to Svalbard in 2019. Her video piece, Anatomy of Ice, is the documentation of a performance Rowan developed during that time, in which she runs her hands over a piece of ice on the shore, enacting a relationship between her own watery body and the body of water contained in the ice. The soundtrack uses recordings from a hydrophone submerged in the ocean, capturing the sound of ancient air bubbles leaving the ice as it melts, an archive of atmospheric history.

Although much of this archival information escapes unanalysed as the Arctic ice retreats ever further, scientists use ice cores - samples drilled from deep within glaciers and ice sheets - to access climatological and atmospheric data. Horizontal bands across an ice core can be read like tree rings, each made up of a different season’s snowfall. Chemical analysis of the samples can provide evidence about the historic climate conditions of the earth.

‘For Rowan, water as it passes through its various states is both symbolic of, and a literal representation of, how we are embedded in the cycles of nature.’

Hannah Rowan, detail from Flower of the Salt - part of her solo exhibition, Prima Materia, at Assembly Point, London, 2019. (Photograph by Ben Westoby. courtesy of Hannah Rowan / Assembly Point.)

US artist Peggy Weil’s 2017 work, 88 Cores, takes as its subject the GISP2D Ice Core, drilled in the Greenland ice sheet between 1989 and 1993. The piece consists of a four-and-a-half-hour video in which viewers are taken on a journey descending two miles through the ice sheet in one continuous panning shot. The slow pace of the video reminds viewers of the non-human timescale over which the ice sheet was formed.

Ice holds memories, as Nancy Campbell eloquently notes. Her book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate (2018), charts a seven-year research project for which she travelled to Arctic regions of Iceland and Greenland,
explored libraries and museums, visited the oldest curling club in the world, and delved into historical scientific texts. Campbell’s vision of icy places does not constitute the barren, pristine emptiness of the Romantics or of the popular imagination; instead, she emphasises the messiness of the polar regions and the challenges of living and working in them.

Campbell conceives of the polar ice as the “first archive”: a compressed repository not just of layers of data but of narratives and stories, which human understanding can barely comprehend. She further notes that for some local Indigenous groups she meets in Greenland, the surface ice is better than any words when it comes to telling hunting stories. Where ice looks flat and blank to most European eyes, for many Indigenous peoples it is legible and alive with information.

For Arctic peoples, according to Campbell, ice is a necessity rather than a burden. It allows them to travel at great speeds across disparate land masses, providing essential access to seasonal hunting grounds and permitting a nomadic lifestyle. An unexpected thaw means stasis and perhaps even starvation. Today, when the seasons no longer shift in their long-established patterns, many Arctic Indigenous cultures are on the brink of extinction. The eternal ice, like Andersen’s story, is a fairy tale: the change is real, and it is already affecting our lives.

‘Campbell conceives of the polar ice as the “first archive”: a compressed repository not just of layers of data but of narratives and stories, which human understanding can barely compre­hend.’

Peggy Weil, 88 Cores (2017), video. Exhibited at the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2019. (Photograph courtesy of Peggy Weil)

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