Melting Glaciers Inspire Artists

Artists have witnessed, documented, and represented glaciers with performances, photographs, movies, and various forms of art. Recently, the glaciers have come to embody multitudes of social connotations, including as indicators of the most tangible manifestation of anthropogenic climate change, according to M Jackson at Department of Geography, University of Oregon, in her paper Glacier and Climate Change: Narratives of Ruined Futures.

People make sense of the world through narratives, she wrote. The artistic works produced and shared about glaciers and glacier retreat reveal how people structure their thoughts about glaciers and how they interpret a world with glaciers.

Jackson, therefore, presented five examples to illuminate and demonstrate the glacier-ruins narrative: the work of well-known American landscape painter Diane Burko, conceptual artist Kitty Von-Sometime’s 2014 performance Opus, ice installations by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, the documentary film Chasing Ice, and the National Park Service’s Exit Glacier display within south-central Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park.


Ice Installations

In October 2014, Danish artists, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, placed 100 tonnes of glacier ice in the central city square of Copenhagen. After several days, the ice melted naturally. The artists intended to implicitly express that the parent glaciers in Greenland were also retreating due to climate change.

However, the work of art did not have the intended impact on its audience. To many people, the melting ice was a perfectly normal occurrence placed in an urban setting, associated with basic physical science. The climate change context was somehow normalized, or even neglected by transporting melting glacier ice to urban Copenhagen.


Glacier Art

Diane Burko is a well-known American landscape painter. She has been engaging glaciers in her photographs and paintings that correspond with the mixture of science and art in her own work.

Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980–2005. Courtesy of Diane Burko.
Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005. Courtesy of Diane Burko.

Burko’s oil painting Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980–2005 is a classic example. The Columbia Glacier itself is painted vertically from the top to the bottom of the canvas. Scientific recession lines are painted horizontally, in bright primary colors, across the glacier. The glacier, in fact, is no longer existent, but it comes alive in Burko’s interpretation. The ruin of glaciers is highlighted in many of her works.


Glacier Film

Kitty Von-Sometime, a conceptual artist, utilized ruined glaciers to backdrop her most recent film, Opus. The film was shot on Langjökull, an Icelandic glacier. The opening of the short film is striking, with the artist striding across the glacier in a frozen glacial-blue dress composed of thousands of pleats, and a choker wrapped around her throat. The film is loaded with powerful symbolism, and the glacier, as the background of the film, is supposed to convey a metaphor for loss.


Glacier Documentary

The documentary film Chasing Ice records American photographer James Balog’s project to photograph widespread climatic changes across the planet. In the documentary, Balog embarks on a tour of the vast glacier landscapes, including some of the world’s largest ice systems. Many of the ice landscapes have not even been extensively photographed before.

“We feel like we have an obligation to preserve the memory of these landscapes for people of the future, who will be looking at landscapes that will be profoundly different than what we’re seeing here today in 2012”, said Balog in an interview to promote the film.


The Exit Glacier Display

The Exit Glacier. Photo credit: Sathish J. (via Flickr)
The Exit Glacier. Photo credit: Sathish J. (via Flickr)

The Exit Glacier is the most easily accessible glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. Visitors to the Exit Glacier can physically experience the disappearance of ice by tracing the route of glacier recession. During the summer months, buses, shuttles, and cars keep the short park road very busy. The visitors can not only experience glacier loss with climate change, but also understand the implied recovery and growth after glacier loss.


These works of glacier-ruins are of outstanding individual prominence and scholarship. The representation of glacier and ruins not only brings about contemplation of loss, but it is a focal point that reveals the emotions and impacts of glacier loss.

“This is not a case for settling for uncertainty, but rather, an encouragement to continue renovating the cultural imaginary of the future into something that does not necessarily have to absolutely include a world without glaciers”, said Jackson.

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1 Comment

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August 21, 2015 at 09:08 AM

Diane Burko writes:
I was in Argentina’s Patagonian ice field this January. Explored Perito Moreno, Upsala and Viedma – which was astounding!! Would love to share some images with you. Please email me [burko at verizon dot net] so we can connect.
Also want to thank you for the MELTING GLACIERS INSPIRE ARTISTS article. it was wonderful to be written up in a scholarly journal….

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