In 2018, Timothy McDowell, artist and Professor of Studio Art at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, became involved in the on-going eco-art project, Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss, founded by Edwin Dobb and Peter Koch. His commitment to the project and the environmental issues it addresses prompted him to develop and co-curate an exhibition called Fire and Ice with Connecticut College Professor Emeritus of Art History Barbara Zabel. Under the aegis of the Extraction project, Fire and Ice is currently on view through October 15, 2021 at the Cummings Art Center on the campus of Connecticut College.
Fire and Ice is one of 63 (to date) Extraction exhibitions, events, and publications that have occurred or will occur globally during 2021 and beyond “committed to shining a light on all forms of the extractive industry – from mining and drilling to the reckless plundering and exploitation of fresh water, fertile soil, timber, marine life, and innumerable other resources across the globe” as well as the damaging effects of the climate crisis. In addition to calling attention to the destruction of the planet’s natural resources, the Extraction project encourages artists to use the power of the arts, as Edwin Dobb proclaimed, to “destabilize the way extractive industry is portrayed and consumer culture promoted. We can hijack and reroute the conversation about what constitutes a good life in the opening decades of the 21st century. We can sound an alarm. We can raise a ruckus.”
The 17 artists participating in Fire and Ice have all heeded the call. Their media is as varied as the issues they address and includes video, soundscape, sculpture, painting, land art, drawing, installation, printmaking, and public art. The exhibition’s title is derived from Robert Frost’s renown poem of the same name, which curator Barbara Zabel believes “aptly articulates the focus of the exhibition: nature’s fragility in the face of untamed capitalist growth and climate crisis:”
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Gregory Bailey, sculptor, and Associate Professor of Sculpture at Connecticut College, has two pieces in Fire and Ice: Mobil Pumping Unit and Rain-Collecting Water Cistern. Both reflect his determination to make art to promote a sustainable life by using upcycled materials that compensate for carbon usage and reduce consumption. Bailey created Rain-Collecting Water Cistern for the purpose of collecting water that he then used to grow trees. His intention was to significantly offset the carbon originally needed to make the sculpture with the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere over time by the trees he had grown.
Mobile Pumping Unit is Bailey’s personal response to the alarming increase of mega forestfires occurring throughout the world, and particularly in California where he was raised. Designed to protect his own property from fire when the climate crisis eventually creates the conditions in the Northeast conducive to large fires, the sculpture can pump water from his swimming pool using multiple hoses with branching lines to project water onto the flames. In winter, it can also be repurposed to pump water from his pool onto a nearby pond to create a smooth ice-skating surface. In a video he made for Fire and Ice, Bailey describes the development and functioning of Mobile Pumping Unit.
Brooklyn-based visual and sound artist Nikki Lindt has spent the past four years studying how the climate crisis is impacting the permafrost in Northern Alaska. Permafrost Thaw Series, Tumbling Forests of the North – her multimedia project in the exhibition – consists of nine drawings made on-site in Alaska with marker and acrylic pen on paper, a diary of her explorations, and a soundscape recording of permafrost melting.
Several of Lindt’s drawings in the exhibition reveal “drunken forests,” areas where trees are growing in different directions, even horizontally, because the melting permafrost has caused ground instability. Sketch 1 (shown above) shows a large sink hole where despite the destruction caused by climate change, life is still pushing up from the earth. In all of these drawings, Lindt used bold strokes and brilliant colors to document significant environmental loss, creating a dynamic that forces the viewer to consider the dichotomy between the enormous power of the climate crisis to alter the Earth and the regenerative power of nature to heal itself.”
Lindt’s video soundscape adds another dimension to her study of permafrost. The sound of crackling earth and dripping water was recorded in a Thermokarsk Failure, a hole in the ground created entirely by thawing permafrost. The recording provides a startling soundtrack to the consequences of the climate crisis.
After recent visits to a South American rain forest and to Iceland, Timothy McDowell was moved enough by what he had seen to refocus his artwork on conveying “our reckless exploitation of resources… current events regarding the environment, the causes of increased migration flows, and the insidious erosion of democratic values.” Although he says that the work he is creating now is much harder to sell than what he had created before, he sees it as his contribution to raising a ruckus.
Like all of the works in the exhibition, Daily Concerns, McDowell’s piece in Fire and Ice, is beautiful at first glance. Looking closer, you see flooding, a burned-out structure (perhaps from a mega forest fire), pollution spilling into a body of water, fumes, a mosquito (perhaps disease-carrying), combat figures, and pieces of a meteor descending to Earth. The skewed angles of the unknown structure, which make no logical sense, provide the overall impression that our world as we know is totally out of whack.
Text artist John Boone makes paintings out of simple words, idioms, and colloquialisms in American English using a font that he designed himself. His nine canvases in Fire and Ice convey a sense of extreme urgency and the need to change one’s consciousness and behavior concerning the environmental crisis we are all facing. A.S.A.P, Sitting Duck, Paradigm Shift, Heads Up, and Sea Change are phrases that are instructional as well as provocative. These are the words along with all of the images, videos, recordings, and sculptures in Fire and Ice that should motivate us all to raise a stink before it is too late.
Additional artists in the exhibition include Rachel B. Abrams, Nadav Assor, Chris Barnard, Zaria Forman, Michael Harvey, Emma Hoette, Wopo Holup, Pamela Longobardi, Robert Nugent, Lynda Nugent, Christopher Volpe, Amanda Wallace, and Andrea Wollensak. The opening reception for the exhibition is scheduled to take place on October 2, 2021 from 6:00-7:30 pm.
(Top image: Installation view of Fire and Ice at the Cummings Art Center, Connecticut College, New London, CT, 2021.)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water, is a visual re-creation of the world, a 40-panel re-imagining of the natural world without humanity’s harmful impact upon it. This fall, she will be participating in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she will be comparing changes over time to bodies of water throughout the world.