In the midst of the holiday season, with record cold temperatures in parts of the world and Winter Solstice, the shortest day/longest night of the year, upon us, I’ve been spending time studying work made with a simple organic material: Ice. Truth be told, despite spending my childhood in Minnesota, I now live in the desert, and the only ice I see is in my drinking glass. After studying art works made with ice as a central material, I am struck by a number of repeated inclinations by a number of artists. Much of the works I present here demonstrate that the transitory and temporal qualities of ice lend it to meaningful works about the body, time, climate, a sense of place and elements of endurance. Though this list is in no way exhaustive, artists included are: Marina Abramovic, Jay Atherton and Cy Keener, Nele Azavedo, Kirsten Justesen, Greatest Hits (a collective), Julie Rrap and Tavares Strachan.
Marina Abramovic has developed works for decades that push the bounds of performance art, activating ritual, rhythm, gesture, pain and time as key components. Her works are generally agonizing in their test of endurance on the artist’s body, mind and spirit- which in turn invokes a mirrored feeling from observers of her work. One of her most memorable works was “The Lips of Thomas” which she first performed back in 1976 (pictured above) and performed again with slight adjustments even recently (see first image in article). In this work she cuts a five pointed star onto her stomach with a razor blade, whips herself until she feels nothing, eats two pounds of honey, drinks a liter of red wine and lays on ice in the formation of a cross for a painful length of time. The length of the performance has been extended in each performance, initially being only 30 minutes long- until the artist had to be carried of the stage by the audience. The most recent performance lasted seven hours, as a demonstration of the artist’s evolved endurance over the years.
Sao Paolo-based artist Nene Azevedo began creating miniature ice sculptures of seated people back in 2001. What began with only a handful of sculptures, which she would place out in the city and document their melting destruction, has evolved into larger and more global temporary installations. The works are entitled “Monumento Minimo” and have taken place in Paris, Tokyo and Havana, among other places and are a mediation on and celebration of the temporary nature of things. The figures are always installed around large public monuments, as “urban interventions.” As they melt, becoming distorted and eventually disappearing into puddles, they serve as “anti-monuments.” The simplicity of this work in multitudes succeeds at being both poetic and whimsical while also subversive.
Kirsten Justesen, a Scandinavian feminist artist, has worked with both ice and her body as her main artistic tools for several decades. In work that ranges from sculpture to installation to performance to photography, the artist’s work is diverse in medium but connected by the long standing theme of the body in relation to environment. Justesen views her body as a sculptural tool and was first inspired to begin using her body in her work as a sculptural object after noticing that her figure resembled the type of female body painted repeatedly in 19th century paintings by male artists. One of the things I find terribly interesting about her work is that you never see her face- not once in decades of work. This is intentional because Justesen believes the inclusion of her face introduces her expression, and then the work becomes about her. However she has viewed herself mostly as a tool or medium in her works, not the subject.
A few years back the architect/artist team of Jay Atherton and Cy Keener collaborated on a work entitled “90 Days Over 100.” This work was a massive architecturally beautiful arcing tunnel for museum visitors to walk through that was covered in dense ice. Installed at SMoCA, which is in the desert of Arizona, for the whole summer season, this piece slowly melted and deconstructed over the agonizingly hot season. With issues of climate change, the disintegration of the polar ice caps, and record temperatures, which reach up to 122 degrees at the site of this installation, this work is both a haunting beautiful chamber, and a demonstration of the fragility of our elements.
Greatest Hits is an Australian Collective, which includes artists Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijier and Simon McGlinn. Their work featured here entitled “Aquae Profundo” of an alien ice sculpture in a refrigerated case is a puzzlingly humorous work, as it is uncommon to see UFOs appear in contemporary art. This work was commissioned by the Australian Center for Contemporary Art.
Tavares Strachan has been using ice and travel between regions as foundations for his work for several years. This last year at the Venice Biennale the Bahamas was one of several newcomers with a pavillion at the exhibition, and Strachan was their solo artist. His work centered on climate change, demonstrating the intrinsic connection between climate shifts in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. His project for the Biennale was entitled “Polar Eclipse” and featured ice blocks he had excavated and transported in solar powered freezers, as well as documentary elements to his travels.
Julie Rrap is an Australian artist whose work has centered around the body, performance and the earth’s elements for several decades. One of my favorite pieces by her is “Walking on Water” (pictured below) in which she adopts the phrase from biblical text on Jesus for her own purposes. The miracle of water changing form from liquid to solid to gas, tha we can walk through it when it is fog, splash in it when it is in puddles, and walk on it when it is solid ice is a simple demonstration of the wonder of our earth and its elements.