a short history of conceptual ice art

Guest post by Charles Stankievech, a Dawson City/Montreal multimedia artist who has been teaching 4D art at the KIAC School of Visual Arts (SOVA) in Dawson City since it opened three years ago. The Ice Cubicle interviewed Charles in early November about his exhibition The DEW Project; now he contributes this post about ice’s role in Conceptual Art.

A Short History of Conceptual Ice Art: From Baxter& to Eliasson

both images ©Iain Baxter&, 1964/2009 (posted with permission of the artist)

This last week I got a fax from 1964, in particular from Canadian artist Iain Baxter& (and yes that ampersand is supposed to be there, it’s legally part of his name). To be technical it was a fax of a work performed in 1964—but since faxing is an art form in itself for Iain, and following theorist Marshall McLuhan’s lead, Baxter& was one of the first artists to use this type of communication as a viable “aesthetic of distance”—the fax felt, shall we say, hot off the press.

Humourously, the hot fax revealed documentation of a cold piece called 2 Tons of Ice Sculpture performed in 1964 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

In a recent conversation with Iain Baxter&, he described the piece within his Zen framework:

in this public performance (some say it could be the first performance work in Canada) I used a flame thrower like a gun, to try to melt the ice as well as picks & shovels etc. It was a kind of aggressive WESTERN PHILOSOPICAL GESTURE …. after a while I realized how violent my actions were so I decided to simply sit & observe the ice melting all by itself. It lasted a few days.

As far as I know, Baxter&’s ice sculpture is the earliest conceptual artwork to focus solely on ice.  By conceptual I mean the idea was created first, with secondary concerns—if not irrelevant concerns—about the work’s resulting aesthetics (to use a definition paraphrased from John Baldessari). Of course, such work flourished at one time, but Baxter&’s piece is one of the earliest examples of conceptual art, created even before art critic Lucy Lippard infamously defined the conceptual art epoch in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. And if I can think of a paragon of the dematerialised art object, it’s melting ice.

According to the work’s documentation (archived by the image above in the typical N.E. Thing Co. poster/certificate), 2 Tons of Ice Sculpture dealt with the concepts of “disappearance, impermanence, change & destruction.”

Usually the poster conceptual art piece working with ice is Paul Kos’s Sound of Ice Melting from the exhibition Sound Sculptures held in 1970 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco. In this piece Kos placed two chunks of ice on the gallery floor, surrounded by 8 microphones and a sound system that was to amplify any sound the ice exuded.

© Paul Kos, 1970. Original Sound Engineer: Richard Beggs (posted with permission of the artist)

There is good reason why Kos’s piece has weathered so well; the work was less performative and it photographs splendidly. In other words, it was about the concept of the impossibility of recording ice melting, even with all the microphones and technical gear present to record what I would imagine is a sound pretty much impossible to amplify, at least in the setting of an art gallery (and trust me I’ve tried recording the sounds of ice melting a lot, something difficult to do even with a hydrophone). Kos’s piece is more about the absurdity of silence and the obsession during this period with the idea of technical recording rather than about the properties of ice melting.

But as more and more ice artwork melts…and we do hear about it—from Francis Alÿs Paradox of Praxis (1997) http://www.davidzwirner.com/news/87/work_2902.htm or Ice 4 Milk (2004-06) http://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/56/lg_work_2380.htm to Tavares Strachan’s Arctic Ice Project (2000) (see Ice Cubicle entry on this here) or the plethora of Olafur Eliasson’s ice works.

a view of Olafur Eliasson's "Your waste of time," (Berlin 2006, http://www.olafureliasson.net/works/your_waste_of_time.html)

It seems natural to include within this lineage the little mentioned, but seminal, frozen Baxter& block.

Lucy Lippard was aware of Baxter& working with snow in the mid 60s. She even accompanied Baxter& with Ingrid Baxter (Baxter&’s then-wife and collaborator) as they worked under the moniker NE Thing Co. to the Canadian Arctic in 1969 for a series of performance pieces with Lawrence Weiner. And while Tony Godfrey’s 1996 book Conceptual Art gives Kos the image real-estate for his 1970 work, he does mention Baxter&’s ice work (but without naming it) in a passing list of works along with Allan Kaprow’s Fluids of 1967.

An early conceptual work and even pre-NE Thing Co. production, 2 Tons of Ice Sculpture deserves some recognition and dare I say some resistance to “disappearance”—even if the work itself was about such entropy.


more on Baxter& or Stankievech:

Iain Baxter& is currently collaborating with the KIAC School of Visual Arts students for the fourth OVER THE WIREhttp://media.kiacsova.ca/over-the-wire/ project now showing in Dawson City, until Jan 16/10.

Charles Stankievech is presently curating NE Thing Co. / Baxter& in two exhibitions: OVER THE WIRE http://media.kiacsova.ca/over-the-wire/ and Magnetic Norths http://ellengallery.concordia.ca/en/expositions_aVenir.php

1 thought on “a short history of conceptual ice art”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.