Fragile Like Art

Horowitz finds poignancy in one of Earth’s most vulnerable spots

Art | by Gregory Beatty

What is Majestic? (Fridtjofbreen-Fridtjof Glacier, 77°46’6” N, 014°34’5” E, June 22, 2017), Risa Horowitz

Risa Horowitz: Infrontofamidbefore
Art Gallery Of Regina

Until Nov. 26

This exhibition comes with a back story. In mid-June around summer solstice, University of Regina associate art professor Risa Horowitz did a three-week residency aboard a ship in Arctic waters near Norway. The residency had an art/science focus, and there were around 28 artists (and a few scientists) from North America, Europe, South America and Australia.

Once Horowitz got back, I interviewed her at her studio for a CARFAC SASK newsletter article on the trip. This exhibition had been scheduled in advance of the residency, and she was in the early stages of putting a body of work together.

That work is now up at the Art Gallery of Regina.

Horowitz has long been interested in astronomy, so the residency was right up her alley. Saturn, globular clusters and the sun are three current obsessions, and since the voyage coincided with the midnight sun she conceived a project where she would track the sun over 24 hours as it moved through the four compass directions.

Unfortunately, it was fog season and the sun barely shone. So much for that plan.

The ship didn’t have a fixed itinerary. Instead, guided by the weather and the presence of other marine traffic, the captain would plot a course day-to-day. At one point, they even anchored to an ice floe for three days and floated with the current. Using zodiacs, they also made numerous visits to remote shorelines.

Those excursions were under armed guard, by the way, as polar bears inhabit the area (they had to be evacuated one time when a young male wandered up). They saw lots of other wildlife too, including Arctic terns, minke and blue whales, seals, walrus and Arctic fox — not to mention wild flowers, which were in full bloom in the short growing season.

Because of ice, the ship wasn’t quite able to reach 80 degrees north latitude, which is a milestone for Arctic adventurers. But the weather overall was mild, and that naturally prompted the artists and scientists to think of climate change.

So far, the greatest effects have been at Earth’s polar regions with shrinking ice caps, retreating glaciers and melting permafrost. And while everyone was awe-struck by the Arctic’s beauty, Horowitz noted, they did fret about their own complicity in the unfolding tragedy.

By participating in the residency, after all, they generated a significant carbon footprint — first by flying from their various homes around the world to the Norwegian town of Longyearbyenn where the residency began, then by dieseling around the Arctic for three weeks in the ship.

Horowitz shared space with writers, dancers, filmmakers and musicians on the residency. Her media of choice were photography, digital video and Super 8 film. And aside from a cross-stitch piece that she’s working on from time to time in the gallery, those are the media featured in Infrontofamidbefore.

Having had the luxury of speaking to Horowitz for an hour about the residency plus seeing some of the images she had on display in her studio, I had high hopes the exhibition would be memorable. And while it isn’t a big show, it definitely does justice to her experience as she described it to me.

On facing walls, eight six-foot wide HD Chromogenic colour photographs create a mini-panorama capturing the Arctic’s grandeur. A third wall has three video monitors showing video and Super 8 film that Horowitz took aboard the ship and on land during the residency, while facing the monitors is a wall-sized dye sublimation on polyester work titled What is Majestic? that depicts a fog-shrouded glacier.

During our interview, Horowitz said she didn’t want to be didactic in how she addressed her climate concerns about the Arctic. Of all the works on display, the one that speaks most directly to that topic is I Caused a Landslide. It was taken during one of the zodiac excursions, when Horowitz decided to toss pebbles at a small embankment to see if she could cause a mini-landslide. Prior to the residency, participants had been given strict guidance on how to preserve the fragile Arctic environment — to the point of not following in each other’s footsteps on excursions to avoid stressing slow-growing lichen and moss.

Digging was prohibited, but they were allowed to relocate things. The photograph from the pebble-tossing shows a dark brown patch of freshly disrupted soil on the embankment. As far as environmental catastrophes go in the Arctic, not a massive one, granted — but still a poignant symbol of our individual and collective impact on the region and its wildlife.

A strong element of foreboding also attaches to What is Majestic? While the glacier was fogged in, the ghost-like quality of the image, as seen in the gallery, does evoke thoughts of what likely lies ahead for the Arctic as climate change intensifies.

Beauty of the image, and the exhibition, aside, it’s not a pretty picture.