The digital technology explosion has turned everyone into a photographer, and the mushrooming of social media means the world is awash in an infinity of images.
That’s why the photographer and artist Justin Brice Guariglia wanted to do more to than simply document the effect of man’s activities on the Earth, and climate change in particular, than simply present the kinds of photos he’s done for years for outfits such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, the New York Times and about 100 other publications.
Guariglia did seven low-altitude missions 2015 and 2016 with NASA in a C-130 over Greenland to document the melting of the glaciers and shrinking of the sea ice at the world’s largest island. He took the images and ran them through an acrylic printer, overlaying them many times and mounting the result on polystyrene, resulting in striking abstract images of ice formations that sadly enough have since disappeared.
“I really feel that photography’s been eviscerated. It’s lost a lot of its power. Photography as we know it has become ubiquitous. It’s been reduced to pixels that swipe through incessantly, all day,” Guariglia said, and that’s not going to work for something as profound as climate change.
“We’re dealing with a subject that’s so complex, and so knotty, and its impacts are on so many different levels. That complexity should not be reduced down to just a still photograph … We’re dealing with something that is so much more complex than that.”
“We don’t want to reduce the issues,” he said. “It’s a disservice to go and do a pastel painting of an iceberg which belongs behind a sofa. It doesn’t communicate the issues and the urgency, and it doesn’t establish the depth or dimensionality that’s required by the subject. And the same goes for a photograph. At the end of the day, those are just images.
“And we’re drowning in images. We don’t need more images right now. We need some other way to communicate,” he said.
The Greenland-based artworks are on display at the Norton Museum through Jan. 7 in an exhibit called Earthworks: Mapping the Anthropocene. That word refers to the current geologic epoch, in which, scientists say, change is being driven by human activity, unlike the previous eras. The exhibit also includes art drawn from Guariglia’s photos of mining activity in Asia.
The 24 pieces in Earthworks, in small and large formats, are featured in a white room next to the Norton’s 20th-century American art collection; laid out in discrete groupings of black, white, gold and silver objects, they use deeply buried images of an Earth in decline to create recondite yet haunting pictures. Arctic Ocean I (2013-16), which has white bursts on a black gesso background, is reminiscent of the fireworks of Whistler, but much more ominous, while Landscape Study C-1 (2011), which depicts a mined landscape covered in pewter leaf, evokes the tintypes of eras past, as if someone was able to take a slow-exposure aerial at Sutter’s Mill in 1849.
Much the most beautiful of the images is Qanaaq I (2015), a huge image made up of four parts in which snow and shadow look inviting and soft (these images are titled after Greenland place names); perhaps the most haunting of them is Naajaat I, which in the lower-right corner bears what looks like a wound, an impression left by a giant warm thumbprint as the mass underneath gets soft and begins to crumble.
That these images work as warnings and artworks was the selling point for Tim Write, the Norton’s curator of photography. He’s known Guariglia for some time, and the exhibition began when the two men ran into each other at another event, and Guariglia told him he had “found it,” meaning the format in which to express his current thoughts.
And so Wride paid a visit to Guariglia’s Brooklyn studio, and came away certain he was going to curate a show.
“When I saw this work, and it’s so completely different than his photojournalistic work, that I was just knocked out. And especially when I began to dig into the work … the types of material choices he’s making are as integral to the integrity of the work as are the images,” Wride said. “And that’s what really tipped me to do the show. Did we think that it was going to change the world? No. Does it have a lot more resonance now? Yes.”
Gauriglia, 43, a native of New Jersey, has an extensive résumé that includes awards for photo books in 2008 and 2013, several monographs of his photographic work in China, and in April of this year, an app for iOS called After Ice, in which downloaders can punch in their location and see what it will look like after sea rise from climate change (he’s working on a version for Android).
His approach to art, as a phone conversation made clear, is fiercely intellectual, driven not only by his commitment to making art but by the thoughts he develops in partnership with philosophers such as the British academic Timothy Morton, now a professor at Rice University in Houston, who will be speaking about Guariglia’s work during a symposium at the Norton Museum on Jan. 6.
Guariglia was able to get NASA to agree to let him come on the flights because they were aware of his 20 years of work in the same line, he said. But these were no comfort flights. For the most of the eight-hour trips, Guariglia was flat on his stomach in the bitter cold, shooting from only 1,500 feet above the surface. On two of those flights, he became violently ill, having neglected to load up on his Dramamine.
“They said I turned purple at one point,” he said.
But the experience was revelatory, and at the same time hard to grasp, much like the scale of the changes humans are bringing forth on Earth.
“Climate change is a byproduct of all these crazy things that we are doing as a civilization, whether it’s the consuming of plastics or the burning of fossil fuels; all of these things are pushing us to this brink, to this existential crisis,” Guariglia said. “But we’re so disconnected from this thing, because it’s happening on such a scale that’s it too slow to see, and it’s happening thousands of miles away … They operate in these temporal and spatial scales that are non-human.”
“How can we begin to understand these things? It’s almost impossible,” he said.
Well aware that the Southern White House of President Donald Trump is only four miles from the Norton, Guariglia said he would love for the president to “get engaged with these ideas,” even if it means he has to knock on the door at Mar-a-Lago himself.
“I’m an incredibly optimistic person, and the biggest problem is we’re so disconnected from these ideas, we’re so disconnected from these things that are so important,” he said. “And I hope that my work can get that conversation going and get people connected.”
And that can happen with artworks as immediately interesting as the pieces in Earthworks.
“It’s more honey to attract the bear, in the sense that it sucks people in and gets them curious,” he said. “If the works are painterly and pretty, I have no problem with beauty in art as long as there is some very hefty intellectual something-or-other underpinning the work.”
That doesn’t mean a viewer has to latch onto that intellectualism; he or she can simply look at the pieces from an aesthetic point of view.
“I don’t want to be didactic with the work. I don’t want to be teaching people anything. I’m just here to ask questions and get people thinking,” he said.
And Wride agrees, saying while the context of the work is compelling, the images themselves are lovely in their own right.
“Really great art engenders questions,” he said. “Those really beautiful photographs are actually requiems for dying things. But if you don’t get there, that’s OK. They’re still really beautiful photographs.”
Despite the monumentality of some of the pieces, the striking gold and blacks of some of the others, these works are enormously subtle – again like the abstract expressionists – but once carefully viewed and considered, they are impossible to forget. Given that 2017 may go down as the year as the true climate change tipping point, with repeat monster cyclones, Biblical rains and searing wildfires, this small but powerful exhibit may be the single most urgent and important collection of art to see this season.
EARTHWORKS: MAPPING THE ANTHROPOCENE is on view through Jan. 7 at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Admission to the Norton is free through 2018 as the museum undergoes extensive renovation and expansion. For more information about hours and other programs, call 561-832-5196 or visit www.norton.org.