This Artist's New Landscape Studies Are of Melting Glaciers

Tue, 08/22/2017
Welcome to the Anthropocene sublime

JAKOBSHAVN I, 2015-2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Picture Credit: 
Justin Brice Guariglia
Kyle Chayka
The Verge

Photographer Justin Brice Guariglia’s studio in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn is a high-ceilinged warehouse with a single skylight shielded from the heat of a summer day. A single image is mounted on the back wall, a 16-foot-tall rectangle covered in an abstract, textured pattern in white monochrome. It looks like it might depict the surface of the Moon or a molecular magnification; the image is otherworldly and yet oddly intimate. But I feel a shock when I realize what the photograph actually depicts.

Guariglia, who worked with publications like The New York Times and National Geographicas a photojournalist before turning to art, took the photograph from 1,500 feet while on a military transport plane on NASA’s Operation IceBridge. In his work as an artist, Guariglia uses photography to observe the unobservable. His pieces enable individual viewers to viscerally experience the vastness of climate change. It’s impossible to look at them without acknowledging how we are all implicated, no matter how small we feel.It shows the melting surface of the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, which is collapsing at its edge, dumping 38 billion tons of 110,000-year-old ice into the ocean every year. Jakobshavn is one of the fastest-moving (“galloping”) glaciers in the world. Guariglia’s piece is both dazzling and sickening, its undeniable visual attraction reinforcing the disaster that it documents. The artist turns the abstract, inhuman numbers into something more concrete: a landscape.

The photographer’s upcoming exhibition at the Norton Museum in Florida, which opens September 5th, is titled, Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the increasingly mainstream term for the geologic era of human dominance over the environment, marked in 1950 by the first nuclear tests and the proliferation of plastic pollution that might outlast humanity itself. Guariglia creates visual records of the Anthropocene that can be understood either as proactive warnings or advance monuments to our own folly: we didn’t understand the damage until it was too late.

In his studio, Guariglia points to the image of Jakobshavn melting on the wall. The ice pictured might already be flowing as the oceans rise; though Greenland might feel distant, the consequences are immediate. “This tells us how much time we have until Gowanus is underwater, or the tip of Manhattan is underwater and we have to relocate,” Guariglia says. “All this stuff is interconnected.” Suddenly the ground beneath us in the studio feels a little less stable.

Artists have been representing nature since ink could be put to paper or paint could be brushed on a wall. The Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 906 CE, developed its own genre of landscape painting to evoke spiritual longing for the natural world, while in the West, landscapes evolved from superfluous backgrounds added to religious scenes into an independent format. Dutch and then British painters in the 17th and 18th centuries particularly took to the secular subject matter.

The “sublime” is a key concept in understanding art’s relationship to nature. The word means “extremes of elation and horror, about something unknowable and the infinite, something beyond what you are and your understanding,” says Alison Smith, a curator at the Tate museum in London. The sublime is “the idea that nature can turn against human beings.” In the Romantic period of the 19th century, painters like Caspar David Friedrich took to showing humans in the midst of nature’s unknowable force, as in Friedrich’s famous “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” from 1818. In the painting, a well-dressed gentleman gazes out over a misty mountainscape, both threatening and inaccessible. The Hudson River School also pursued the sublime in documenting the vast American frontier.

Such work “created habits of viewing that were possessive,” says Alan Braddock, an art historian at The College of William & Mary who is curating an exhibition of American art and environmental issues at Princeton University opening in 2018. “Landscape painting was part of the process of encouraging people to go and conquer the planet.”But as the Industrial Revolution progressed, artistic landscapes changed. Canvases became smaller and views more intimate; nature was something more easily conquered, its wildness increasingly invaded by machines. Factories even featured in the work of early 20th century Impressionists like Monet. There was “an awareness of what human beings have done to the natural world,” Smith says. This led to an “anti-sublime,” according to the curator, that showed nature as something being occupied or consumed, a view that has lasted into our own century.

The conquest is now over. Guariglia’s work, along with other contemporary photographers like Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky, move toward what I began to think of as the Anthropocene sublime. Today, nature is once more seen as terrifying and incomprehensibly large because we are busily destroying it. It’s the same fear as the Romantic sublime, but for a different reason: we’re responsible for turning nature against us. That explains the looming dread I feel stepping in front of a work like “Mining Topographic I,” an aluminum panel covered in gold with an aerial photograph of a Chinese mine printed on top in heavy black ink. The image might be abstract, but I can’t ignore how humanity transformed the earth into this crosshatched, violent landscape — the opposite of organic.

In the Anthropocene, art must confront a pivotal question. “Should artists just depress us with pictures of oil spills, or should they affect our aesthetic sensibility and instill a sense of wonder and beauty?” Braddock asks. Plain documentary, demonstrating the facts of climate change, is vital. But so is using visual beauty as a tool to better confront us with the reality of melting glaciers and rising temperatures. In other words, perhaps new aesthetics can help us imagine a different future.

Guariglia is 43 years old, with an ascetic’s shaved head, scruffy beard, and habitually dark clothes. He is relentlessly curious and an omnivorous reader, but having never received formal training in either photojournalism or art, his explanations of his own work tend to be tentative. The photographer leaves no reason to doubt his dedication to the material, though. Along his arms is a single tattooed black line that wavers up and down before curling up around his wrist. It’s 650,000 years of CO2 data from an ice core in Antarctica, and the wraparound represents the hockey-stick rise of the last 50 years.

When I first meet Guariglia at his studio, he’s with Tim Wride, the Norton’s photography curator, who has known the artist since his photojournalism days. The exhibition’s environmental concerns are pressing for the museum as well. “The Norton is in south Florida,” Wride says. “I’m terribly aware of the fact that my house is only four feet above sea level.” The melting glaciers in the photographs mounted around the Brooklyn studio, “well, that’s what’s making my shoes soggy.”

Guariglia saw China emerge as an industrial force — along with the accompanying changes in the local landscapes. The transformation resonated with him, but he wasn’t sure how best to approach it in the age of the iPhone. “We’re drowning in imagery, drowning in social media streams,” Guariglia says. “It’s eviscerated the medium.” If the documentary street photography championed by the likes of Magnum had lost its punch, how could a photograph rise up to the changes Guariglia was observing?Guariglia grew up next to the historic New Jersey home of the Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand. His awareness of that fact, combined with a career in the Boy Scouts, gave him an early engagement with nature, he says. He didn’t pick up a camera until he was studying abroad in Beijing in 1996, when he and a fellow student took up film photography as a hobby. After an internship at the iconic photography agency Magnum in New York City, he made his way into the field, living in Beijing and Hong Kong and working across Asia over the following two decades.

After moving to New York in 2014, he began experimenting with different photographic techniques, using a specialized printer that works in ultraviolet light to print on unorthodox surfaces like polystyrene and aluminum, laying down multiple layers of acrylic ink. “I wanted to go beyond the document, wanted to create something closer to painting,” Guariglia says. He used the new techniques on the aerial images he was shooting; the abstraction of the materials matched his views of the landscape from above. Guariglia’s first image of sea ice was shot out of a commercial plane window on route to Hong Kong passing over Greenland.

Guariglia’s work underlines the overwhelming quality of the hyperobject while also making it possible to perceive at least a shade of the phenomenon. His photographs give the mind something to grab on to, a toehold in the vastness. Guariglia feels an affinity for things so large in scale they’re almost impossible to imagine, which the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects.” (Morton’s book of the same title is even laying on a studio table.) Hyperobjects are networked phenomena so huge and enduring as to be at the edge of human understanding, even though we might influence or create them. Climate change is a hyperobject. So’s plutonium, and so’s a black hole. “Hyperobjects outlast me, and they out-scale me in the here and now,” Morton writes. Beyond the grasp of any one person or entity, the hyperobject is less a thing than a system: causes and effects, swirling like a hurricane. Nature itself is a hyperobject; that feeling of the Anthropocene sublime emerges as we confront just how little we understand it.

In 2015, NASA allowed Guariglia aboard Operation IceBridge, a mission that documents ice melt in the Arctic. He brought an extremely high-resolution digital medium-format camera on the plane and came back with the images now on his studio walls.

Science is predicated on accuracy; art isn’t. But scientists’ appreciate art’s ability to communicate: “Personally I think artwork that helps people understand climate change is sometimes just as good as a story in a newspaper or on TV,” says Joshua Willis, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist.Guariglia’s work might be a form of reportage, but it is not exactly factual. In order to intensify their impact, the photographs are cropped and modified to emphasize certain qualities — visual abstraction, texture, and rhythm — irrelevant to NASA’s data collection. When I look at Guariglia’s “Qaanaaq I,” a photograph of the eponymous Greenland glacier, I don’t see decaying outlines or flood zones but the bulbous texture and forms of the ice itself. The effect is visually dazzling but also stomach-turning: struggling to place myself in relation to the image, I end up feeling a desire to turn away, if not run — the image threatens to subsume the viewer, an effect more potent than a line on a graph.

Take the change in temperature, for instance. “At first, a warming climate of a few degrees sounds small,” says Zachary Labe, a PhD student in Earth system science at UC Irvine. Labe creates visualizations of Arctic sea ice in digestible animated GIF format. But when that change is illustrated with art, visualized data, photography, or even music, it’s easier to understand its significance, according to Labe. Still, trying to communicate information comes with a responsibility. “We also have an obligation to be scientifically accurate through whatever medium we present,” Labe says. “And we have a responsibility to show that this is happening and will continue to happen.”

On its own, data isn’t particularly sublime. It’s scary, and it can be awe-inspiring if you know the context, but it doesn’t come with the gut punch of art. But art that’s overly didactic is often boring. At best, artists can both help us understand our current nightmare — by provoking an awareness that we are in immediate trouble — and help us find a new way forward by showing that different possibilities exist, renegotiating our relationship to the world around us. The art historian Alan Braddock points out the need for “imagining new sensibilities and new attitudes that are not just about acquisition and conquest and exploitation.”

Guariglia calls his work with NASA a collaboration, driven by equal parts art and science. But working with government agencies brings its own challenges, particularly given the current administration’s attitude toward climate change. The president wants to slash NASA’s climate science research, moving the $2 billion in funding to its space program. Guariglia pays his own way, as the agency takes pains to point out, but if art isn’t seen as necessary to the scientific process, he might find continuing the collaboration impossible.

When I return to Guariglia’s studio on another hazy summer afternoon weeks later, he’s working with a studio assistant to sand and prepare aluminum panels for printing. Blocks of white polystyrene lay out to dry like so many chunks of ice. It’s part of the work that these materials will outlast the artist, and certainly survive longer than the ice that the photographs picture. Guariglia is creating his own hyperobjects, commenting on the buildup of human detritus — and adding to it.

Part of what’s so frightening about the Anthropocene sublime is that just as we weren’t aware of causing it, we also don’t know if we will actually be able to stop it. We may never return to a less fraught interaction with nature. Guariglia sees his work as “bearing witness to that transformation and seeing how humans were impacting, changing, shaping the planet,” he says. “It makes the Anthropocene visceral,” something felt, not just counted or observed. Climate change won’t stop if we choose to ignore it. Meanwhile, Guariglia continues his documentation. Political controversy or not, the photographer is scheduled to go on a flight with Oceans Melting Greenland in September; in fact, he just received the sign-up forms.

Before leaving the studio, I look back to the print of Jakobshavn Glacier on the wall once more. Even from the last time I saw it, that ice must have changed, sliding into the ocean and making its way toward Brooklyn. The image feels like a looming threat that we must change our lives, as an archaic sculpture told Rainer Maria Rilke in his famous poem — or else.

Correction Aug. 28 2:30 PM ET: The story has been corrected to note the actual starting date of the show is September 5, that the photo of Jakobshavn Glacier was taken at 1,500 feet, and that the commercial flight was to Hong Kong. We regret the errors.