Our Time In Ice

| 22nd April 2013
Onca Gallery, Brighton

'On the Brink' by Alison Bell

Mary Stevens reviews the current exhibition at the Onca Gallery in Brighton which aims to explore the connections between creativity, climate change and communities.

As spring finally starts to win the struggle against recent icy winds Brighton’s Onca gallery is curating a creative response to climate change. ‘Our Time in Ice’ aims to bring people here closer to understanding Arctic landscapes and life. While melting northern glaciers may be geographically remote, the Onca team are using collaborative artwork and events to communicate the impact of climate change on the Arctic, and on us.

‘Our Time in Ice’ is the second exhibition at Onca (One Network for Conservation and the Arts) which was opened in November 2012 by Director Laura Coleman. On graduating in the arts Laura worked for several years on conservation projects in South America. She returned home to urban Sussex inspired by her experience to employ her joint passions in re-engaging people here with the world around them.

Onca is a registered charity  drawing on a global network and working with local people, institutions and business to bring art, conservation and community together.  Laura explained:

“I was planning to move back to Brighton and wanted to combine my conservation experience with my artistic interests. I wanted to create a space to bring people closer to its landscape and the life it supports. “

The contemporary relevance of alerting us to the connection between our temperate homeland and disappearing distant ice fields has recently been made clear. While Britain lay smothered in a swathe of March snow, government chief scientist John Beddington used his last week in post to point out how we are already experiencing weather variations predicted by climate scientists.He linked this to the Arctic heating faster than other parts of our planet.

Days later, as we waited for our unaccustomed ice world to thaw, meteorlogical specialists confirmed ice melt as the cause of a stunted spring. An increased loss of ice is changing air and water temperatures causing weather patterns to get stuck  – altering previously ‘normal’ cycles and flows – in March 2012 Britain basked in heat and drought, this year, we froze. 

Media messages of environmental doom might fade fast, but Onca wants to link global concerns with ongoing community education. The gallery invites involvement from nearby schools and colleges, enjoying their support through creative contributions to shows.

The frost themed frontage for ‘Our Time in Ice’ is a window inspired by the thoughts of children from Brighton’s Balfour primary school on melting glaciers.  Window glass is layered with words reflecting the laminate structure of the Arctic ice, but actually created from salvaged Perspex.

During the run of the show these words are set to melt away reflecting the loss of ice and the memories stored within, exposing more of the images inside to passers by. The message faces outward to the A23 where the gallery enjoys a busy, if unexpected, position.  It is deliberately sited beyond Brighton’s Cultural Quarter and fashionable North Laine, with the aim of greater accessibility to a public normally intimidated by art. 

Inside Onca the team are welcoming, and the airy space provides a bright backdrop for interpretations of white and blue Arctic hues. Entering the gallery on a gloomy day eyes are drawn to the most immediately striking work - Gold Dust by Dario Vargas.  This portrait, of a glacial blue sea and skyscape painted in oil on metal sheet, shines and reflects light in the way ice might, subtly changing according to perspective.

The fragility of the Arctic ecosystem is encompassed in a small bronze sculpture of a polar bear by Alison Bell, precariously balanced on the edge of a crumbled block of alablaster near the entrance to the space. Titled 'On the Brink',it is unimposing and almost overlooked, bringing to mind how the predicament of the distant Arctic environment is at risk of neglect by us.

Other works include sea themed prints paired with the eco-poetry of Susan Richardson, and a commissioned mixed media collage Arctic Meltdown by Dafila Scott (granddaughter of polar explorer Sir Walter Scott).

In the cave-like basement space an evocative video installation 'Alchemical Waters' by Ruth Le Gear is projected. The 12 minutes of ice melting light melding with sky mirrored in water are on one level calming and meditative, but if coupled with knowledge of potential impacts of melting ice, quietly threatening.

This is accompanied by expedition photographs presenting the intrusion of human visitors into glacial spaces. A photograph of Siobhan Davies’ Dance Troupe depicts a column of prominent art world figures (including sculptors Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whitread and novelist Ian McKewan), trooping in line over a pristine icescape like a column of ants crossing a sugar bowl.

Another photograph is taken from the book ‘Arctic Reflections’, which documents, in photos and thoughts, a European Union funded youth expedition to the Norwegian Arctic. A Brave Swim shows the group enjoying a daring dip in the glacial sea.

Reports of expeditions to the Arctic – whether from tourists awed by its quiet beauty, politicians and reporters making a point or artists seeking inspiration in its immensity – have become familiar. This journey into a disintegrating landscape leads joint author and tourism researcher Christy Heir to ask ‘But what right do we humans have to travel to every corner of the world – just because we can?’

The striking visual simplicity of the Arctic landscape in the images on show belies the complexity of the systems that created their subject and have sustained it until now. Emerging from the exhibition into a, to date, still chilly and precarious temperate spring, we are left reflecting on the fragility of all our times. 

Our Time In Ice:  http://www.onca.org.uk 

14 St George’s Place, Brighton

Wed – Sun until May 31st.