According to the poster on the wall of “Cryosphere: Humans and Climate in Art” from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “cryosphere” as “The part of the earth’s surface where water exists as ice; the entire region of the natural environment that is below 0°C, especially permanently.” If you first thought, as I did, that the weather we’ve been experiencing lately would make it hard to appreciate an entire exhibit on snow and ice, think again. “Cryosphere” is a charming, fascinating and terrifying look at humans’ relationship to the coldest parts of our planet and our impact on them.
Based on the brief description that I read before I trekked across a snowy campus to the Loeb, I thought this was an art exhibit about climate change. When I got there, though, I found out that I had only been partially correct. This is absolutely an exhibit about climate change, but most of the art being showcased was never meant as an exploration of that theme. The pieces include photos of snow-capped mountains, scenes of people braving the cold in their everyday lives, depictions of animals who rely on frigid climates for survival and records of Arctic expeditions.
One of the first works I saw was “Winter Afternoon (Winter in the Catskills),” a 1936 print by Doris Lee. The piece depicts a group of ice skaters frolicking on a river, while quaint houses and dependable evergreen trees pepper the hills in the background. It’s enough to make even me—someone who will not shut up about wanting winter to be over—feel warm and fuzzy inside. And I’m not the only one—according to the caption next to the print, the piece appeared in a coffee advertisement in 1947. Now, though, the scene represents something more complex—as the caption also explains, “Outdoor ice skating as depicted in this picture is, however, increasingly becoming a memory, rather than a reality, of winter in New York. Not far in the future, the planet will warm beyond a point where snow can accumulate.”
Doris Lee didn’t intend “Winter Afternoon” to be a sobering reminder that the seasons as we know them are changing shape before our eyes. However, put into the context of the world we live in today, that’s what it has become. Despite the fact that climate change is already displacing millions(according to the UNHCR), it can be all too easy for those of us who haven’t had to face those realities head on to forget the immediacy of the manmade crisis that is unfolding before us.
Another image that caught my eye was Mark Klett’s photograph, “Looking North Through the Snow Tunnel above Goat Lake, Sawtooth Range, Idaho.” This is simply a gorgeous image, showcasing the striking beauty of ice. The subjects of the photo, a person and a dog, are seen through the aforementioned snow tunnel. The snow and ice on the ground resemble a glass sculpture, while the tunnel’s icy ceiling is reminiscent of other natural patterns—dunes, craters, waves. Yet again, while nothing in the serene and steady atmosphere of the photo itself suggests that something might be amiss, the context of “Cryosphere” makes the viewer consider the photo in a more complicated light. To me, Klett’s photo feels like a love letter to a landscape in danger.
It can feel all too easy to fall into climate despair and climate anxiety when faced with the realities of what humans have done to our planet, and I won’t pretend that this exhibit didn’t bring any of those feelings up for me. But that wasn’t all it did. The art in “Cryosphere” serves as not just a historical record of what we’re losing, but as a heartening reminder of what we still have. In this way, it serves as a call to action: to preserve and protect as much of it as we can. One part of what can make the climate crisis feel so daunting is the perception that only people with specific scientific knowledge are equipped to handle it. However, “Cryosphere” challenges that assumption, asserting, as the poster describing the exhibit does: “Neither the visual language of art nor science can confront the complexity of the climate crisis alone. Instead, thinking must expand beyond discreet disciplines as humanity employs every possible means—scientific, artistic, and beyond—to address our geological moment in time.”