Voyage of Discovery: Art and the Arctic

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macro/micro

Right now at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, here in Washington, D.C, is an art show about climate change in the Arctic. Three local artists worked together on the show, called Voyage of Discovery.

I know, art about climate change in the Arctic. It sounds depressing at best and preachy at worst. But it’s not.

Artist Michele Banks does lovely work with the strange blues of Arctic ice. In the windows of the gallery hang “Micro/Macro,” a series of ink-on-mylar paintings about the transition between ice and water (one is above). Elsewhere, in a series of cute little round watercolors set in petri dishes, her patterns suggest algae and other critters that live in the Arctic sea.

Climate change has human effects, too, of course. In a piece called “In the Balance,” a boat made of handmade paper over a steel frame, based on a native Alaskan fishing boat, is tossed by giant waves; this was inspired, says artist Jessica Beels, by hearing that people in Alaska have found they can’t predict the behavior of the weather and the water as well as they used to. Global climate change has meant local weather changes and more dangerous encounters with the sea for people who make their living from it.

In mildly creepy, biological-looking wax sculptures, artist Ellyn Weiss imagines the kinds of organisms that might emerge as ice melts. Woolly mammoth carcasses have already emerged from permafrost; what else might be waiting for discovery in the world’s frozen reaches?

The largest work in the show is a 30-foot-long installation along a wall that the three women worked on together. It’s called “Waning Albedo.” Albedo is the amount of light that is reflected back by a surface. Bright white ice and snow reflect a lot of light. One of the problems when ice melts in the Arctic is that it’s replaced by darker water, which absorbs more of the sun’s heat and warms faster.

With a background of bright white satin and a layer of tulle, the work vaguely suggests a wedding dress, but a wedding dress made of melting ice. It’s like a melting glacier: white with the snow on top, then the blue ice and the darker and darker layers as they mix with dirt and rock. It reminds me of melting sea ice in the spring, collecting dirt as it bumps against the shore.

The show shows the effects of climate change without beating you over the head with your culpability. The Arctic is beautiful even when it’s going terribly wrong. Water goes through a spectacular series of blues as it transitions from solid to liquid and back again.

As the Earth warms, the poles are warming faster than the temperate zones; that means the gap between the temperature here in Washington, D.C. and the temperature at the poles is changing. The gap in temperature drives winds and contributes to the the jet stream–and recent changes in the jet stream are affecting our weather down here in the temperate zones, according to research presented at the AAAS meeting in Chicago a few weeks ago.

The melting of ice in the Arctic might seem remote. But it’s beautiful and it’s awful and it’s your problem and mine.

Photo: Pete Duvall. More photos on flickr.

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2 thoughts on “Voyage of Discovery: Art and the Arctic

  1. Lovely and memorable last line, Helen. I also want to mention that I really like the fact that AAAS displays art exhibits.

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