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Visual Arts

Dallas Artist Jeff Gibbons Brings Ideas on Ice to National Academy of Sciences

What if massive refrigeration units could refreeze the ocean? Gibbons mines the quest for a cure-all.

There’s at least one place where scientific research and artistic inquiry are coming together in Washington. The D.C. Art Science Evening Rendezvous (or DASER) incorporates speakers from both realms to make sure neither conversation gets stale. Hosted by The Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (or CPNAS), this interdisciplinary approach includes a different theme each month, loosely interpreted by each invited expert. For February, the prompt was ice, and Dallas artist Jeff Gibbons was called up to participate. Others on the program included photographer and video artist Clea T. Waite, who deals directly with ice in landscapes, and Diane Tuft, who deems herself an “environmental fine art photographer.” 

As a concept, ice is rather loaded. The word conjures images of starving polar bears and fractured ice sheets. For Gibbons, the topic of ice as a political subject, one of increasing alarm and global concern in the light of planetary warming, can be limiting. In concert with refrigeration works exhibited in Dallas, most recently at his solo show with Expo Park’s Power Station, Gibbons is writing a book. It’s a kind of autobiographical fiction. The protagonist invents massive refrigeration units that can refreeze large swaths of the ocean to reverse climate change.

“The whole ice thing came from my dad, and him being an HVAC guy, and me working for him on and off as a kid, ice being involved in things a lot of the time,” Gibbons says.

“At one point [we’re] going to fix the heat in this house where this old man has recently died, and all that we knew about the house was that the guy that lived there had recently died, and his wife had died something like 10 years prior. We got out there and there was this huge hole in the roof, the first thing you kind of notice.

In the first floor living room, a two story house, was a hole in the ceiling that had another hole in the floor above it and in the roof, so you could see the clouds passing by in the sky. Under the hole was a large blue kiddie pool and it has been filled to the top with rainwater. It was the middle of winter, so it was this frozen big block of ice inside of this kiddie pool sitting in the middle of this living room.”

The image of the ice, a vestige of someone’s former legacy and a symbol of their departure, stuck with Gibbons.

‘Thinking about this span of a life, the goals we set, the things we do, the problems that arise, and the sadness of it all. And then attaching to him and having this quasi-fear of becoming something like that, and letting the ice become this sort of object that’s like a fire or like a pet, or it’s part of the home.”

Speaking at the conference was a good chance for Gibbons to show previous work, and to explore the ideas he’s developing within his practice. His message explores the way we look at our fears of the world, and our ideas of success and failure.

Participants in The D.C. Art Science Evening Rendezvous view Jeff Gibbons’ sculpture ‘For Hugging.’ IMAGE COURTESY DASER

The audience, being party to an inquiry on science and hopeful of how that can be a tool of change, was earnest to ask how to apply themselves to a greater good. One individual posed the question, “What can I do to reverse the warming of the planet?” Gibbons’ reponse:

“What if you end up inadvertently killing a whole species of bird because they get blinded by [the fictional refrigeration device], or they think it’s water and they dive into the roof? It’s like, we can do all these things all we want and we don’t really understand what we do, and we’re just chugging along, missing all these other things along the way.”

It’s a realization that we’re not necessarily problem solvers, try as we might. We’re only empathetic to a certain end. He goes on to describe his fictional arctic refrigeration device concept in depth.

“So the machine in this case is the epitome of that. Its this thing that on the surface looks like this really grand idea, in the act of freezing the ocean, it pushes the salt out. So you can melt the [ice] core and get drinking water. It’s this kind of like nice cozy idea but like anything else if you really think about this action we have on things or each other, we really don’t understand it. We’re not smart enough to control much of anything. We try and try and it’s like learning. That should probably be the biggest thing.”

Freezing something is a pointed act to use in an art practice, because it is ephemeral; it isn’t static. It has be to actively be frozen or it reverts to its previous state. Perhaps for that reason we liken it to the environment, reliant on a delicate balance of forces. For Gibbons, it’s a bit more like a history or a remembering of life and living.