The full title of Tavares Strachan‘s ice sculpture is a poetic line of yearning: The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (Arctic Ice Project). The phrase is almost conversational, long and lingering enough to hook me in right away, even before I see the images of what it is.
Arctic Ice Project deals in active displacement rather than reactive displacement. In 2005, Strachan, a U.S. artist, went to the Alaskan Arctic and worked with a team of technicians to cut out a one-tonne block of ice. Since then, that same block of ice has inhabited a special freezer kept cold through solar power.
Arctic Ice Project was first shown in 2006 in the hot summer weather in the Bahamas – Strachan’s birthplace – and is now on view at The Brooklyn Museum until September 27.
One one level the sculpture, with its sealed environment, gently points to social issues around immigration. The ice traveled to an environment extremely different from its place of origin, and is vulnerable out of its original context.
On another level, Arctic Ice Project is a technical feat, using the sun to generate cold instead of warmth.
And on yet another level, the work creates a modernist white cube out of a natural substance –
a white cube that needs plenty of specialized contextual assistance to continue its survival.
A press release from The Brooklyn Museum describes Arctic Ice Project‘s layers of meaning this way:
The act of transporting refrigerated Arctic ice to his childhood home was in part a response to Strachan’s experience as a child, when he found the idea of landscapes of snow and ice almost impossible to comprehend. The work suggests the interdependency of two extremes, with the heat of the sun in a warm climate keeping an icy piece of the Arctic intact. At the same time, it alludes to a number of environmental and social issues, including the realities of climate change, our notion of what is valuable, and the immigrant’s experience of displacement.
It’s not the first time Strachan has moved a chunk of land from one place to another to experiment with displacement. In 2005-06, he removed a segment of sidewalk from New Haven, Connecticut, and sent it by truck to Luggage Store, a gallery in San Francisco. He calls this one Where We Are Is Always Miles Away, again offering an unusual take on cultural and personal displacement.
The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want and Where We Are Is Always Miles Away both remind me of the way we protect and display trophies brought from “exotic” locales. Recall too that humans were displayed as exotics in several World Fairs in the US and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Strachan’s irony feels even more potent.
In these works Strachan asks, subtly and with visual potency, how we consider what is ours. Asks about the “how” of acting on our desires to have something that isn’t currently ours, or that maybe even can’t be owned. Asks, and engages, and critiques without closing the conversation down.