Sensing the Anthropocene in Louie Palu’s Melting Arctic

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The vastness of the Anthropocene is embedded in the name itself, implicating (often in problematic ways) all of humankind in the stratigraphic record. But the Anthropocene—in addition to being a ubiquitous shorthand for the ravages of capitalism and colonialism—is also an everyday embodied experience. “What does it feel like to live in the Anthropocene?” I often ask my students, “And how can artwork help to bring those feelings into the ethical and political presence?” As an environmental humanist in a primarily natural- and social science-based academic program, I am especially invested in thinking about climate change with my students through non-dominant forms of environmental knowledge: those rooted in bodily experience, emotion, affect, imagination, and storytelling. Time-based artwork is an especially rich genre for exploring the embodied and sensory experiences of climate change alongside broader questions about the role of time in our perceptions of environmental impacts. 

“What does it feel like to live in the Anthropocene?… And how can artwork help to bring those feelings into the ethical and political presence?”

In the Spring of 2019, Canadian documentary photographer Louie Palu mounted an installation titled Arctic Passage in Austin, Texas, co-sponsored by the annual SXSW Art Program and the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center. Photographed on assignment for National Geographic, Palu’s Arctic Passage is set against the backdrop of the 1845 Franklin expedition, and it explores the polar region’s shifting geopolitics amid the ongoing legacies of neoliberalism, militarization, and climate change. Opened for one day on March 12, Arctic Passage consists of a series of large photographs frozen in blocks of ice and displayed on the plaza of the Harry Ransom Center, an archive and museum in Austin. Over the course of the day, the opaque ice blocks melted to reveal the embedded images, which portray the Arctic communities, both Indigenous and settler, affected by climate change in the Arctic Circle. I was able to capture images at various stages of thawing throughout the day.

Louie Palu's Arctic Passage Exhibit in Austin, Texas in 2019
Louie Palu’s Arctic Passage installation. Austin, Texas. 2019. Photo by Delia Byrnes.

In one piece from Palu’s series, standing at approximately 2×4 feet, a photograph glistens behind a block of semi-translucent ice on the concrete pavement. The frozen photograph is titled Canadian Airman, Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada, 2017. It’s a close-up portrait of a person standing in front of an icy-blue background, their face obscured by a white ski mask. A dark camouflage jacket is zipped to their chin, with a hood pulled over their head. Only the subject’s mouth and eyes are visible under the mask. Flecks of ice cling to their eyelashes, and they stare directly at the camera, although their expression is largely illegible due to the ski mask. Throughout the day, the melting ice revealed the detail and nuance in the photograph and its subject, while water pooled at the base of the installation.

I had the opportunity to revisit the installation throughout the day, to observe its revelations at various stages of thawing. It raised questions for me about the ways that the spectacle of a melting Arctic subject on view in Texas interpolates the viewer’s body into the globalized spaces of climate change, and how I might think about this alongside students. Teaching this image in the interdisciplinary environmental studies classroom has provided me an especially rich opportunity to engage students in dialogue about both the material realities of the climate crisis and the value of subjugated forms of environmental knowledge, such as affect and embodied experience. By reflecting on images of this melting installation, students are invited to explore the ethics of witnessing; the relationship between embodied experience and the globalized scales of climate change; and archival production in the Anthropocene.

Canadian Airman, Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada, 2017 at Louie Palu's Arctic Passage installation. Austin, Texas. 2019
Canadian Airman, Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada, 2017 at Louie Palu’s Arctic Passage installation. Austin, Texas. 2019. Photo by Delia Byrnes.

Often when my students look at visual media or other forms of environmental storytelling, they tend to jump straight into analyzing the image itself. But this melting Arctic installation offers an opportunity to slow down and inhabit the tactile experience of climate change, to conjure the contrast between the unseasonably hot Texas sun at the exhibit site and the rapidly thawing Arctic Circle represented by the melting ice-block frames. What would it feel like to watch this photograph melting before your eyes? How do the frozen images of Arctic Passage inscribe the exhibit-goer’s body in the matrix of climate change? When I recently discussed this image with undergraduate students, they remarked specifically on the staging of the photo in Texas, the birthplace of twentieth-century oil culture. To stand on the grounds of a public university such as UT Austin, which maintains deep ties to the oil and gas industry, while observing the melting Arctic before one’s eyes, would be to occupy a discomfiting position, to feel one’s body pulled into the circuit of global warming.

“What would it feel like to watch this photograph melting before your eyes? How do the frozen images of Arctic Passage inscribe the exhibit-goer’s body in the matrix of climate change?”

 This image serves as an object lesson in both the personal, embodied scales of the Anthropocene, on the one hand, and the politics of environmental knowledge production on the other. How does the steady disappearance of the ice that frames the images challenge ideas of artistic preservation? What does the Anthropocene mean for archival production? As these images suggest, the rapidly melting Arctic isn’t just an environmental problem; it’s also an epistemic one. Gazing at Palu’s melting installation, the viewer is confronted with a disappearing archive that literally evaporates into the concrete beneath, the remaining photograph water-damaged and limp as the day progressed. The impermanence of Palu’s frozen installation is thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of the Ransom Center’s etched glass walls. The frosted glass renderings of artworks housed in the archive have a similar appearance to Palu’s ice-block images, yet their permanence contrasts sharply with the fragile, melting Arctic series. Palu’s installation presents us with an archival conundrum: it is only through the erosion of the preserved photographs that their meaning becomes legible. This work thus reveals the climate-based vulnerability of both art and bodies, offering an opportunity to dialogue with our co-thinkers in the classroom about the broader stakes of knowledge production in times of environmental crisis.

Although my students don’t have the opportunity to engage with this exhibit in real-time, the frozen image nevertheless serves as an opportunity to reflect on the ways that time-based and climate-centered art help us make meaning from the everyday scales of the Anthropocene, even as the American imagination of the melting Arctic traffics in the fantasy of distance. Palu’s frozen photographs exist in embodied time and space and invite us, as viewers, to occupy our differential complicities and vulnerabilities to climate change.

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Delia Byrnes

Delia Byrnes is an interdisciplinary scholar of the environmental humanities and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. Her research focuses on energy, infrastructure, and environmental justice in contemporary U.S. literature and culture. Her first book project, titled Refining America: Energy, Infrastructure, and the Arts of Resistance, examines Gulf Coast oil imaginaries across a range of 21st-century storytelling media. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in The Cambridge Companion to American Literature and the Body, Modern Fiction Studies, The Global South, Environmental History Now, and Ecocriticism and the Future of Southern Studies.

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