The past sealed away

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Deborah Carruthers is the Peter Wall Institute's first Wall Artist in Residence as part of our new partnership/artist exchange with Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Photo: Chelsea Yang-Smith/Banff Centre 2017

By Katie Stannard

A few years ago, Deborah Carruthers was at a university in Montréal conducting research for an art project. She noticed an empty rack in a dark hallway and asked what it was for. With a deep sigh, one of the faculty members explained that the federal government had cut science funding and one of the results was that the university was unable to keep the ice cores previously stored in the racks. Labs had lost access to the thousands of years of data that were stored in the cores. In some cases, only photographs remain. Ice cores contain information about past climates including temperatures, and trap small bubbles of air that can be used to measure the past concentration of gases in the atmosphere. This memory remained engrained in Deborah’s mind and she began reflecting on how the loss of ice cores impacts our knowledge of climate change.

Photo: Deborah Carruthers. Athabasca Glacier, May 23, 2017.

Multidisciplinary art is defined as an area of expertise that blends various disciplines and is displayed outside traditional exhibition forums. Deborah Carruthers exemplifies this through the utilization of several forms of art that create involuntary memory. Her conceptually-based practice enables her to explore issues of particular interest such as genetics, the environment, absence and solastalgia. Deborah describes the approach as the creation of a series of works which individually present a facet of the idea under consideration, and collectively seek to provoke deliberation of the larger topic.

Deborah is examining how glaciers may be seen as having their own agency, as well as how they may be memorialized, through her series "The Past Sealed Away" where she will explore several media to present her ideas. During her initial research she took photographs of the Athabasca Glacier to capture a given moment and provoke thought of glacial movement. She plans to use white marble to recreate the ice cores as sculptures and expand her ideas into space. White marble has historically symbolized both purity and immortality. The marble cores will be placed into an ice core storage rack sourced from a disused storage freezer for exhibition. Part of her project explores how ice properties impact sound and how sound correlates with altering movements. Deborah will create Slippages, a 'graphic score' which is a non-traditional interpretation of sound or music, to create a sense of place and geography of the fundamental movement of ice.

Wall Artist in Residence Deborah Carruthers is exploring various facets of disappearing ice through her project The Past Sealed Away. Photo:Deborah Carruthers. Athabasca Glacier, May 23, 2017

Deborah’s projects typically span a few years, as understanding the topic requires research, reflection, conversing with a variety of individuals, and ultimately discovering why the project is vital and what knowledge is absent. Deborah has a sense of urgency in her voice as she describes how the rate of environmental change is a fundamental concern.

The Past Sealed Away project is different,” she says. “We need to be able to communicate the seriousness of the issue and present a sense of the scale of receding glacial ice that resonates with the public. My project aims to achieve this.”

As a child, when her family drove the Columbia Icefield parkway, Deborah was fascinated by how the snow gathered between the peaks of the Athabasca Glacier. Forty years later, while she was at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, she visited the glaciers again and noticed the snow had leveled off and the glacier had retreated. Reflecting on her experience she laughs apologetically: “The meaning of moving at a glacial pace has changed over the years.”

Photo: Deborah Carruthers. Athabasca Glacier, May 23, 2017.

To enhance her comprehension of glacier movements, Deborah will meet with a diverse cross section of UBC faculty while in residence at the Peter Wall Institute. As she discusses her anticipation for her residency at the Institute she describes her experience with so called think tanks.

“While in residency at the Banff Centre, I was unbelievably productive,” she says. “Think tanks are the way I like to work and process. It is fitting that I drove to the Banff Centre because when I left, my car was packed with art pieces leaving just enough room for the passenger to see over the dash. Think tanks solve profound questions and challenges by enabling conversations with endless possibilities."

Deborah hopes that the opportunity as the Institute's first Wall Artist in Residence will elevate her work and create a dialogue around the urgency of anthropogenic climate change.