Out of Ice
Out of Ice
at Ambika P3
By Crystal Bennes
Published 7 February 2014
Despite endless pronouncements regarding its decline and fall, ice is everywhere – at least in the art world.
This proliferation of climate-change themed art is largely the result of the success of Cape Farewell. Founded by artist David Buckland in 2001, Cape Farewell has been the producing arm behind a vast body of creative output tackling the subject of climate change: from a novel by Ian McEwan to a melted-glacier-cum-island for one by artist Alex Hartley. Most notably, however, Cape Farewell were the commissioning brains behind High Arctic, a project by United Visual Artists exhibited in 2011 at the National Maritime Museum. UVA’s engaging installation merged technological wizardry with consummate storytelling and was beautiful to behold as well as informative – setting a high standard for future art in the realm of climate-change.
For Out of Ice, a new exhibition currently on show at Ambika P3, Scottish artist Elizabeth Ogilvie partnered not – as one might expect – with Cape Farewell, but with the British Antarctic Survey. A world-leading centre for environmental research, the British Antarctic Survey is the main body for nearly all of the UK’s scientific activities in the Antarctic region. Perhaps the most notable difference between the two organisations is that the British Antarctic Survey is a research centre, as opposed to an arts organization, and as a result their artistic collaborations feel less driven by a climate-change awareness-raising agenda.
Consisting primarily of two large pools of water, taking up most of the floor space of the vast former concrete construction hall, Out of Ice feels more polemically on-trend than it perhaps means to be. Eight blocks of ice hang suspended above one pool, dripping slowly down into the water below. Cameras above capture the drips and ripples, projecting the patterns onto two large screens.
The second pool provides a reflective surface for another film, this time of fast-moving pieces of ice, again dissolving into water – all shot in the artist’s studio. The films and pools of water have a contemplative quality to them, like being in a Japanese rock garden, but on the whole the installation is unsatisfying.
By way of comparison, James Balog, a National Geographic photographer compelled by the need to gather visual evidence of changing Icelandic glaciers, is a good example of how aesthetics and agenda can come together to create something truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Balog set up 27 timelapse cameras across the Arctic to record changes in glacial ice over a number of years. After gathering thousands of images, Balog and his team then compiled them into a series of stunningly beautiful timelapse videos that showed the rate of change across glacial ice. Cunningly realising early on that aesthetics would mean the life or death of the project’s success, Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey is, to my mind, not only a more emotionally engaging approach, but a more visually compelling one as well.
By contrast, Out of Ice feels stuck between an emotional appeal and a visual appeal, without fully committing to either. By moderating the strong aesthetic force of her subject, the ice, through a delicate, almost meditative aesthetic, Ogilvie’s concept doesn’t quite work, particularly not at the large scale presented. From a brief investigation, it’s clear that Ogilvie has spent a great deal of time researching both the ice and the native people of Greenland – one wonders why this wealth of knowledge and ideas weren’t channelled through the work. There is an appealing sense of calm about Out of Ice, but perhaps the subject would have been better served with something a little more provocative.
Out of Ice is at Ambika P3 until 9 February 2014.
Crystal Bennes is a London-based writer, editor and maker and contributor to the Royal Academy Magazine blog.