D.2 Fire and Ice: Elemental Art and Its Histories, Part 2

Thu Oct 21 / 11:30 – 13:00 PDT
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chairs /

  • Siobhan Angus, Yale University
  • Ivana Dizdar, University of Toronto

At once sources of survival and destruction, of sustenance and danger, elements — broadly defined — have always been a point of fascination for artists and thinkers. This panel investigates how artists have represented, repurposed, and responded to elements, foregrounding their potential as materials, metaphors, mediums, archives, and frameworks. How, we ask, have aesthetic engagements with the elemental figured in our understanding of the world and our role in its transformation, especially in the context of settler colonialism, climate crisis, and geo/bio/necro-politics? What does elemental art tell us about temporality, endurance, disappearance, emergency, and disaster? How might we reimagine approaches to art history by thinking elementally and repositioning — or decentering — the human? This session features research by scholars working at the convergence of art, politics, and environment and across mediums, geographies, and time periods.

Siobhan Angus specializes in the history of photography and the environmental humanities. Her current research explores the visual culture of resource extraction with a focus on materiality, perceptions of nature, and environmental justice. Her scholarship also engages with the history of capitalism and labour, settler colonial studies, temporality and scale in the geological turn, and the relationship between art, science, and industry. She is currently a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Art and a visiting scholar at the Yale Center for British Art. She holds a PhD in Art History and Visual Culture from York University, where her dissertation was awarded the Governor General's Gold Medal. Her research has been published in Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, Radical History Review, and Capitalism and the Camera (Verso, 2021) and is forthcoming in Geohumanities and October.

Ivana Dizdar is an art historian, curator, and artist whose work examines art and geopolitics since the late eighteenth century. She is a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Fellow in art history at the University of Toronto, Curatorial Assistant of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, and Guest Curator at the McMaster Museum of Art. She holds master’s degrees in art history and curatorial studies from the Sorbonne and Columbia University, and has worked on major exhibitions at MoMA, Qatar Museums, and the 59th Venice Biennale. Her papers have been published in Thresholds, Vistas, and exPosition, and she has presented her research at Princeton University, New York University, and INALCO Paris, among others. Her performances and videos have appeared in exhibitions and festivals internationally, including venues in Britain, Germany, and the United States.

D.2.1 Southern Comforts: Climatic Reproducibility at the Jardin des plantes de Paris

Kai Woolner-Pratt, Stanford University

Heat — by turns threatening, overwhelming, and alluring — is an integral feature of the "Global South," which is less a physical location than a climatic imaginary rooted in classical thought. Although interventions by 19th-century European architects in the colonies worked to mitigate allegedly untoward climates, architects in the capitols of Europe forced hot air to circulate with gusto in the public sphere. The 19th-century glasshouse was a key site for mediating "southerliness" to a bourgeois, urban public. This comfortable experience of empire reified the climatic alterity of the 19th-century colonial imaginary; that this was communicated at an unconscious, somatic level only reinforced the disjunction between a highly visual Northern modernity and a corporeal, tropical subalternity.

The glasshouses designed by Charles Rohault de Fleury at the Muséum nationale d'histoire naturelle (1832–33) recollect specific — but mutable — environments in the French colonies. Rohault's Paris glasshouses were each destroyed and rebuilt in the late 19th century, and their iron was once again recast in the early 21st. At each turn, the reformation of the hothouses' structure coincided with a transformation of its aeriform environment. Today's New Caledonia glasshouse was first conceived as the Oriental Pavilion, and, in the 20th century, known as the Mexican Greenhouse. Likewise, the Plant History glasshouse was initially called the Occidental Pavilion, but, between 2005–10, served as the Australian Glasshouse.

The Paris glasshouses' mutable regimes of climate control evince an intensification of the colonial episteme of 19th-century Europe. Through the sensory qualia of bodily experience, the Parisian public is somatically educated in a worldview that readily disarticulates climate from its environment. Air is experienced as flexible, changeable, and — above all — governable. Artificial heat is transmuted into an image of imperial power over the territory and over nature: the colonial periphery is mastered in the extraction and reproduction even of its airs.

Kai Woolner-Pratt is working on a PhD in art history and history of science at Stanford University, where he is the graduate coordinator for the Stanford Environmental Humanities Project. He holds a BA (Hons.) from the University of King's College and previously worked as a museum educator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. His recent writing can be found in Future Anterior.

D.2.2 Moths to a Flame: Destruction and Creation in Arte Povera

Laura Petican, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

For Italian artists in the post-World War II era, the prospect of recovery and regeneration signalled by the Marshall Plan and the miracolo italiano accompanied a mode of aesthetic experimentation that saw destructive actions and volatile materials as a means of transformation. Preceded by artists such as Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, whose burned, melted, and slashed works indicated a radical departure from art's material histories, artists associated with Arte Povera pursued a course of investigation into the elemental, alchemical processes that not only rendered the entire world a platform for aesthetic engagement, but overturned conventional understandings of space, time, history, culture, and identity. As described by Tommaso Trini in a 1967 issue of Domus, the exhibition Fuoco, imagine, acqua, terra at Rome's Galleria L'Attico marked the shift to "brutally elementary material, […] that evokes the primordial." Trini was describing works by Jannis Kounellis such as Senza titolo (Margherita del fuoco) of 1967, a wall-based work consisting of a metal daisy with a gas flame alight in its centre, symbolic of the artist's interest in fire for its association with punishment and purification. Other works, such as Gilberto Zorio's Tenda (Tent) of the same year, enacted alchemical processes that assimilated materials to provoke dynamic reactions left to chance. In recognition of the recently passed Germano Celant, and in a spirit of transformation and metamorphosis, this paper will consider the various elemental strategies of Arte Povera as radical practices that burnt a path toward enabling Italy's postcolonial, postnational, cultural present.

Laura Petican is Associate Professor and Director of University Galleries at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Her research focuses on contemporary Italian art and fashion studies. Dr. Petican completed her BA and MA in Art History at Western University, Canada; a PhD at Jacobs University, Germany; and a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellowship. She authored Arte Povera and the Baroque: Building an International Identity, to be followed by Strings Attached: Contemporary Italian Art and the Baroque. She is editor of Fashion and Contemporaneity: Realms of the Visible, co-editor of the forthcoming In Fashion: Culture, Commerce, Craft, and Identity, and was Exhibitions Reviews Editor for Catwalk: The Journal of Fashion, Style and Beauty. Her research has been presented with the College Art Association, American Association of Italian Studies, the Italian Art Society, the Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues conference in Oxford, UK; the Center for Italian Modern Art, New York; and the American University of Rome.

D.2.3 When the Ice Melts: The Sensual and Affective Politics of Rebecca Belmore's Freeze

Elizabeth Went, Tate Gallery/University College London

This paper addresses Anishinaabekwe artist Rebecca Belmore (Lac Seul First Nation)'s 2006/2008/2019 ice sculpture Freeze, which addresses the imbrication of Indigenous loss and climate change, suggesting that climate change is a form of settler-colonial necropolitics and that the haptic and affective qualities of water could posit a different way forward. Freeze: Stonechild Memorial featured multiple successive blocks of ice, into each of which was carved a letter in Neil Stonechild's surname, revealed as the ice began to melt. Stonechild was killed by police in 1990 at age 17: they took him to the outskirts of Saskatoon in the middle of the night and left him there to freeze to death. The emergence and dissolution of Stonechild's name link not only the violence Indigenous peoples continue to face, but also the melting of the polar ice caps, and the fleeting attention we pay to both — for all its careful work, the sculpture was to end up a puddle. I will argue that putting ice and water into affective and material relationships with viewers serves to construct an Indigenous epistemological understanding of 'relations' between viewers, Indigenous peoples, and the natural world.

Freeze will be discussed alongside Olafur Eliasson's 2014/2018 work Ice Watch, wherein Eliasson transported chunks of icebergs that had melted off Greenland's ice sheet into European cities such as Paris and London so that people could encounter them as they melted. Eliasson's work similarly engages with the disaster of the anthropocene and the notion of haptic engagement with ice, but functions differently with respect to memorialization and monumentality. Whilst both works could be considered counter-monuments, their differing epistemological and ontological bases, as well as their different temporalities, produce vastly different works which engage with the overdetermined symbolism of melting ice in complex and careful ways.

Elizabeth Went (she/they) is an art historian and curator from Tkaronto who is currently based in London, England. She is an Assistant Curator, Schools and Teachers, at Tate Galleries, working across Tate Britain and Tate Modern. She is also a third-year PhD student at University College London, studying contemporary Indigenous performance art in Canada. She has written for exhibition catalogues such as the 2014 Jack Bush Retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada and A Story of Art, a touring exhibition featuring Hart House's collection. She has presented at the 2013 Fraker Conference at the University of Michigan, 2018's Octagon Forum Noise at UCL, and the 2021 Association for Art History Annual Conference. She has several forthcoming publications, including contributions to the Jack Bush Catalogue Raisonné, the Royal Ontario Museum's Canadian Collection 3rd Volume, and a yet-untitled book examining Tate's relationship with a pupil referral unit in South London.