Saturday, February 03, 2018
Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Lake Erie gets relatively little attention in winter. In a typically cold season, it turns into a howling white wilderness. Shipping comes to a halt, ice takes over, and the heart of the lake is normally visible only from aircraft or satellites.
Occasionally, as when the Coast Guard rescues fishermen stranded on ice floes, or when fishermen die from drowning or hypothermia, the lake in winter reminds us that it can be an incredibly dangerous place.
It's in this context that Julia Christensen's new show at Spaces in Ohio City that explores Lake Erie ice proves to be unexpectedly intriguing, even seductive.
Entitled "Waiting for a Break," the exhibit focuses on recorded time-lapse feeds from remote video cameras sprinkled across shorelines of Maumee Bay and two of the numerous Bass Islands that hopscotch from Sandusky on the U.S. side to Point Pelee on the Canadian side of the lake.
In a dry manner that blends the dispassionate eye of surveillance videos with the sublime romanticism of 19th-century landscape painting, Christensen's cameras record storms, sudden flashes of brilliant sunlight, and the ways in which the lake quivers and heaves as it freezes, melts and re-freezes.
Lake Erie in winter may seem static, but that's absolutely not the case. This winter it has already cycled through numerous states from solid to liquid, producing everything from patches of clear, glistening water to ridges of jagged, windswept ice.
"Ice is not a binary," Christensen said in an interview at SPACES last week. "It's not frozen, or not; it's shifting constantly."
In addition to the gallery show, funded through the Spaces R&D program, Christensen's project includes a large, real-time video monitor installed in the southwest quadrant of Public Square through May as part of LAND Studio's ongoing Landform project, plus a web page and posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Local with national visibility
Christensen, 41, who has taught at Oberlin College for a decade after previous teaching stints at Stanford, Pratt Institute and other colleges and universities, is a multi-disciplinary media artist pursuing a national career from Northeast Ohio.
She's also one of a number of artists making a good living here, while achieving high-level visibility elsewhere. She has shown her work widely; her next project is a residency in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Art + Tech Lab.
"When I moved to Oberlin, my time and space expanded exponentially," Christensen said. "I thought the Ohio license plate should say: Ohio, who knew?' It's great."
Christensen's previous credits include "Big Box Reuse," a delightful 2008 book that documents how communities across America are repurposing dead big box stores.
To create "Waiting for a Break," Christensen placed six cameras at Peach Point and the Stone Lab Dock on South Bass Island, and on Gibraltar Island, all with help from Stone Lab, the laboratory operated by The Ohio State University's Ohio Sea Grant Program. She installed a seventh at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center in Oregon, Ohio.
She angled her cameras down to keep the horizon high and to make the lake fill most of the screen. Her wide-angle lenses capture broad-curving horizons and nearly featureless views that could hardly be considered scenic, but which turn out to be stunning nonetheless.
At Spaces, her installation has turned the main gallery at spaces into a largely darkened room in which projectors display half a dozen moving images of the lake freezing, thawing and re-freezing in various intervals captured during the months of December and January.
"Cold Snap," recorded at Peach Point, records the single-digit "Bomb Cyclone" that swept the eastern half of North America in early January.
"Three Weeks," made at the Stone Lab dock, portrays the lake in a variety of moods in a panorama that includes the distant Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay.
And "New Year," made at Gibraltar Island, captured conditions between Jan. 1 and 7.
In Christensen's time-lapse video loops, gray days turn suddenly dramatic as cloud rip open and send flashes of blinding light racing across the lake.
Ice ridges form with cornices that stab at the sky, or ice melts from the shoreline outward with a line of dark saturation that slowly grows until water and waves reappear.
Snow captured by the cameras can look blank and featureless, or crystalline and sparkly. Tree shadows rotate; the sun rises and sets.
The installation connects you to big, natural rhythms on a planet that, according to science, is rapidly changing due to human activities that are altering the climate.
The wintry sublime
Beyond that, Christensen's piece evokes a sense of awe that relates to artistic and religious notions of the sublime, which is an awareness that mankind is a speck in a very big universe controlled by powerful natural forces, if not an unseen creator.
The sense of the sublime inspired 19th century landscape artists ranging from Caspar David Friedrich to Joseph Mallord William Turner and Frederic Edwin Church, who depicted the sea in capricious moods and who, in the case of Friedrich and Church, excelled at painting ice.
Christensen's installation filters the romantic landscape tradition through the cold eye of 21st century technology associated with news clips of terrorist attacks or robberies at banks or convenience stores.
Other art historical associations abound. For example, by displaying the same statically framed vistas under various conditions of light and weather, Christensen evokes the landscapes of Claude Monet. The long-form videos in which nothing "happens" bring to mind the experimental films of Andy Warhol.
Yet Christensen's work also provides a fresh appreciation of winter. The varying conditions she captures bring to mind the notion - which turns out to be true according to recent accounts - that Eskimo peoples have scores of words to describe different kinds of snow.
In sum, by using surveillance technology to spy on nature, Christensen has produced a mesmerizing gallery experience saturated with wonder and a sense of place. That's a gift that just might change your view of Lake Erie in winter.
What's up: "Waiting for a Break," video installation by Julia Christensen.
Where: 2900 Detroit Ave., Cleveland (also at Public Square).
When: Through March 23.
Admission: Free. Call 216-621-2314 or go to spacesgallery.org.