When Justin Brice Guariglia was perched by a window inside a flying NASA laboratory taking pictures of 100,000-year-old glaciers crumbling into the ocean, he could not have predicted that the first museum show for the climate-sensitive art he would make with those images would close in the face of rising seas.
“The show has been irony on top of irony on top of irony,” Guariglia says, laughing.
Guariglia will be at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, to speak about the 22 works in the exhibit “Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene,” joined by Norton photography curator Tim B. Wride.
The Norton’s season-opening exhibit debuted on Sept. 5, with Guariglia in attendance and scheduled to deliver his talk two days later. Those plans fell victim to the approach of Hurricane Irma and predictions of record storm surge, with the museum briefly shutting its doors.
An award-winning, Brooklyn-based photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, the Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times, Guariglia took seven flights over Greenland’s glaciers with NASA’s Operation IceBridge. The plane was filled with high-tech equipment, engineers and scientists tracking the density and velocity of the deteriorating sea ice.
NASA and Guariglia had the same goal in mind, to share the science of what was happening to the glaciers in a more compelling way.
“This is going back three years ago, when the government was much more invested in helping to communicate these ideas about climate change to the public. No one knew at the time that Trump would end up in office, and that I’d be doing the first museum show right across from Mar-A-Lago,” Guariglia says with another laugh.
Guariglia says “Earth Works” is less about climate change than, more broadly, how human activity has fundamentally and historically rewired the planet. The Anthropocene is a recently coined term for a new geological epoch.
“We have entered into a new geological period of time, when you can visibly and chemically see traces of how humans have altered the planet,” Guariglia says. “Now that is really interesting to me, because that has much greater implications. How are we changing the planet? We are consuming tons and tons of resources. OK, what does that look like?”
The pieces in “Earth Works,” which range from 30-by-40 inches to 12-by-16 feet, blur the distinctions between photography and painting, which Guariglia says is important on multiple levels.
The largest work, “Jakobshavn 1” (pronounced YAH-kob-SHAH-vin), takes its name from the fastest retreating glacier in the world, dumping 38 billion tons of ice into the ocean every year, Guariglia says.
The image has been mechanically reproduced on a sheet of polystyrene, with the ice’s black and gray creases and shadows rendered in viscous acrylic paint. Guariglia believes that translating the picture into something that looks like a painting takes the information to an emotional place that a photograph might not reach.
“That’s the level that makes you feel it, the one that heightens your senses and gets your mind engaged, at the same time it’s engaging your heart on a visceral level,” he says.
The fact that he’s using the materials that are derived from fossil fuels and do not biodegrade is not done ironically. “Jakobshavn I” will be around longer that the glacier itself, Guariglia says, calling the work an “incredibly archival piece of evidence.”
“It starts to address deep time into the past, because it’s a picture of 100,000-year-old ice, the way it looks today, and then it will last forever. … If we take care of it, if humanity is still around 10,000 years from now, it’ll be there as evidence of what it once looked like,” he says. “It becomes evidence for the future.”
Justin Brice Guariglia will speak about the exhibition “Earth Works” 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Go to Norton.org.