Arctic Vanitas: Temporal Tensions of Imaging the Anthropocene
Victoria Herrmann, The Arctic Institute
In September 2007, The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition debuted in New York City. Rather than focus solely on prominent masters like Hals, Vermeer, and Ruisdael, the exhibition offered a sweeping retrospective of the Museum’s collecting of 228 Dutch paintings from its founding acquisition in 1871 to the early 2000s. As a nascent but voracious art historian living in New Jersey at the time, I spent many weekends sojourning across the Hudson River to visit the hallowed halls of America’s grandiose cathedrals to art. During one such outing on a brisk autumn morning, I ascended the imposing marble staircase at the Met to see the breathtaking scope and depth of The Age of Rembrandt. For hours I lost myself in the dramatic blue skies of Haarlem and impasto portraits of noblemen, meandering through rooms of rarely displayed works of landscapes and genre. The visit was awe-inspiring, an experience that has motivated me over the past decade to seek out further exhibitions of Dutch Golden Age paintings across continents.
Today, when I hear September 2007 I recall a different image, one far removed from the pallets of Rembrandt and Ruisdael: graphs and satellite renderings of a record Arctic sea ice loss. On September 18, 2007, Arctic sea ice extent dropped to a record low of 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles). Though a new record low was recorded in 2012, the 2007 measurement still ranks as the second lowest sea ice extent in recorded history and is visually highlighted on most polar projected maps and graphs of Arctic sea ice.
Figure 1. LEFT Spreen, G., L. Kaleschke, and G.Heygster (2008), Sea ice remote sensing using AMSR-E 89 GHz channels J. Geophys. Res.,vol. 113, C02S03, doi:10.1029/2005JC003384.
Figure 2. RIGHT Climate Central http://www.climatecentral.org.
Though my personal memories of September 2007 have been largely displaced by my subsequent education as an Arctic researcher, there is an unconventional aesthetic intersection between the two. A common genre in Dutch still-life painting is vanitas, an array of objects curated to symbolize mortality and the transience of life. In Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628), a skull is juxtaposed against an overturned glass roemer, an expired lamp, and the accouterments of a writer care assembled to suggest impermanence -- the relentless march of time towards death and the triviality of material pursuits.
Like its prominent symbolic stature in Dutch still-life paintings, the notion of time’s unyielding progression towards some fated demise dominates textual, verbal, and visual climate change discourse. Natural and social scientists alike communicate the consequences of manmade pollution and our species’ voracity for natural resources in sequential frames that measure our temporal distance from future disaster. By 2030, more than 90 percent of the world’s reefs will be critically threatened by local human activities, warming, and acidification; by 2050, as many as 143 million people will be displaced from slow-onset climate impacts like water scarcity and crop failure; and by 2100, low-end estimates of NASA climate models project that sea levels will rise 0.4 meters (1.3 feet).
In turn, decision makers have structured our policy responses, and calculations of loss, in corresponding chronological increments. The Paris Agreement, the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal adopted by 195 countries in 2015, aims to limit global average temperature to well below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The European Union is aiming to cut emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, while Canada has committed to reducing emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 to reach the Paris Agreement limit.
These written dates in scientific, policy, and economic documents act as scaffolding to climate change narratives. The chronological ordering of manmade pollution, consequential global environmental changes, and reactive policy actions offer the reader a robust arc upon which to explore the temporal dimensions of climate change. Literature on climate change in the Arctic is no exception. In scholastic works, policy papers, and political speeches, measurements of sea and glacial ice are written in temporal and material frames – incremental change over time that, cumulatively, proves dramatic.
In the Circumpolar North, calculations of sea-ice melt and shoreline erosion have emerged as particularly salient time-framed narrations of the Arctic climate change. Textual discourses on the dynamism ice and shoreline disappearance construct a layered, continuous narration of change; and with academic revisions and policy advances, the texts themselves become dynamic participants in the layering of date-updates. Inevitably, such orderings enact a certain amount of segmentation and flattening; in this way, the arc of climate narratives appears in the text as a linear timeline of action, impact, and response. Still, in spite of this compression and smoothing, the inclusion of past, present, and future dates catalyzes a simultaneous engagement with and between a multitude of temporal spatialites.
Photographs used to communicate scientific studies and climate policy are rarely afforded a canvas within which to graphically incorporate chronologies and dates (unless altered and superimposed). Yet, visuals of the slow-onset climate impacts of ice melt and eroding shorelines do have a strong aesthetic of time. Akin to Dutch still-life paintings, the representation of past, present, and future temporal realities is imbued in the composition itself. The insinuation of expanding blue and diminishing white in Arctic seascape photography evokes the eventuality of an ice-free ocean; while subjects of structural ruination amidst sea level rise suggest a future of coastal abandonment. In some ways, these two photographic frames can be conceptualized as Arctic vanitas – landscapes that symbolize temporal change as a reminder of their inevitable expiration. Read in this way, visual narratives of climate change in the Arctic educe two thematic intervisualities with 17th Century Dutch oil paintings: the vanity of human activity and the extreme temporal attenuation of their subjects.
Figure 3. LEFT Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.107/.
Figure 4.RIGHT Arctic Ocean sea ice melt as seen from the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Cutter Healy. NASA/KATHRYN HANSEN
Originally, the art historical term vanitas was borrowed from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:2): 'Vanitas vanitatum... et omnia vanitas', translated as 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'. In its 17th Century iteration, the pairing of relatable quotidian pleasures with symbols of death acted as a reminder of the insignificance of material achievements and warning to viewers of the transience of wealth, knowledge, beauty, power, and human life itself. Images of climate impacts in the north conjure similar tensions between humanity’s lust for material luxuries and the fleeting inconsequentiality of those goods when juxtaposed with the environmental impacts of their consumption.
Stockholm-based photographer Christian Åslund’s series “Dead End – Oil Exploration in the Arctic” is one visual sampling among many that showcase the imaged narrative of human vanity in imagery of Arctic climate change. Industrialization, urbanization, and technological advancements brought about by the stark increase of fossil fuel use in the twentieth century led to the oil-dependent lifestyles of twenty-first century countries across the North American and Eurasian Arctic. This extraction, processing, and consumption of oil for petro-saturated everyday practices of material culture not only transformed how societies, workers, political systems, economies, and cultures are organized and connected; it also transformed the planet.
In visualizing oil rigs and transport equipment and sea ice in the same frame, Åslund curates a tension between human action and consequence, drawing a visual connection between manmade activities and disappearing ice. The endless but fragile Arctic landscape is both tethered to and changed by southern cities through the arteries of petroleum infrastructure, linking the Arctic seabed with cars, homes, and other material commodities. Though not as palpable as the vanitas in Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Åslund’s compositions juxtaposed the vanities of human materialities and consumption against the destruction of sea ice. His imaging of Arctic climate change posits the fleeting gains of petroleum extraction with the eternal change of Earth’s oceans, and, in effect, how the vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures have led to the inevitability of death for sea ice.
Here too, a darker reading can be made of the triviality of human pursuit in the face of mortality. In spite of promises, both fulfilled and yet-to-be-fulfilled, of the reduction of greenhouse gases and mitigation of climate impacts, the fate of Arctic sea ice is already locked-in. Even in humanity limited global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the target of the Paris Agreement and the long-held ceiling for a ‘climate-safe’ world, Arctic sea ice will still disappear.
This perhaps is the truest parallel between Dutch still-life and climate change photography today: in visualizing the transience of human activity and Arctic landscapes, climate visuals, similar to their Dutch counterparts, exhort the viewer to consider mortality of themselves and the world around them.
Figure 5. LEFT Dead End #4 “50/50 split image of a survey ship conducting seismic testing off northeast Greenland, firing airguns that emit 259 decibel blasts towards the seabed in order to find possible oil reservoirs. Above water, this sound intensity would be perceived by humans as approximately eight times louder than a jet engine taking off. According to new scientific review, seismic blasting is alarming and could seriously injure whales and other marine life in the Arctic.” Figure 6. RIGHT Dead End #5 “The extent of the Arctic pack ice, Greenland Sea, Northeast Coast of Greenland. Temperatures rise faster in the Arctic than anywhere else, and while scientists are warning of the mounting risks of climate change, oil companies regards the decline of sea ice as a new business opportunity.” https://www.lensculture.com/projects/161745-dead-end-oil-exploration-in.
Like photographs of Arctic ice, shoreline erosion along Alaska’s coastlines have also been elevated as iconic images of climate change in the north. Both ice melt and beach erosion are aesthetically approached as still-lifes; while photographers cannot rearrange the aspects of the Arctic landscape, they curate a manmade frame by focusing on particular objects and excluding the rest. Images of erosion and melt, detailed below, are created by identifying the most compelling composition of change and accordingly cropped.
One photograph of shoreline erosion has been elevated in the visual narrative of climate change more so than any other: the image of a fallen house in Shishmaref, Alaska, taken in 2006. In print media, The New York Times (2016), Huffington Post (2016), The Guardian (2016), and many others used the photograph to cover a recent vote on relocation; on television, ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as CNN (2016) and Fox News (2016) used the image; and even in radio reporting, NPR (2016) and PRX (2016) both recycled images of the fallen house on Shishmaref’s eroding edge. In these reports, two specific photographic frames are often used: one is catalogued by the stock photo site AP Images, titled “Alaska Eroding Village,” it was taken December 8, 2016 by Diana Haecker, a reporter for the Nome Nugget, for the Associated Press. The second set of photos comes from Getty Images and are taken by Gabriel Bouys, an Agence France-Presse photographer based in Los Angeles, on September 28, 2006.
Figure 7. LEFT: Image of fallen house in Shishmaref, Alaska, photographed by Diana Haecker. Published in the New York Times and ABC, among others.
Figure 8. RIGHT: Image of fallen house in Shishmaref, Alaska, captured on September 27, 2006 by Diana Haecker. Published in NBC, CNN, and Huffington Post, among others.
In normal years in Shishmaref, an icepack usually develops in the fall months around the island. This ice has always acted as a buffer against severe storm surges, forcing waves to break miles off shore instead of against the village. As the ice disappears, so too does this natural defense. This loss of ice, combined with the effects of thawing permafrost, have resulted in a loss of three to five feet of shoreline per year, with a single severe storm washing away 50 feet of land. Storms caused such severe erosion in 1997 and 2002 that some homes fell into the ocean and several more needed to be moved. Shishmaref has voted to relocate twice in the past twenty years. The first, more informal vote took place in 2002 after a particularly bad fall storm. While a new site to relocate the village further inland was found, it was eventually dismissed due to hazards of permafrost thaw. On August 16, 2016, in a 94 to 78 vote, relocation was again decided upon (Hovey, 2016).
Both photographs are taken in 2006 at a distinctive moment in Shishmaref’s history. Over ten years later, the fallen house has been cleared, a rock revetment wall now extends the length of the shoreline pictured, and the beach beyond the wall has been eroded by increasingly intense fall storms. Its visual immobility, and construction as a near-still life, allow the photograph to easily function as document and archive in spite of material changes in the Village of Shishmaref. The image is simultaneously anchored to the meaning of climate change impacts and with each use layered upon with additional signs of the image’s symbolism of the insignificance of any one moment in human history or manmade material when contrasted against the relentless passage of time.
Notwithstanding the imagined movement of the composition, the photograph of the house appears static, a quality often attributed to vanitas assemblages in painting and literature. The fixedness and timeless quality of the photograph’s composition – a still life of ruination – stands in contrast to the dynamic realities of village life and eroding island. It has fallen, a swift ruination process brought about by raging seas. But now, as it stands on its side on the newly eroded shoreline, it is serene and calm. Its position almost appears predestined to be here, toppled onto the beach at the edges of America. But in this state of stationary decay there is a disordering of temporal scales. The material objects of the frame, the house and scattered debris, quickly become victims of what Buck-Morss terms “extreme temporal attenuation”, wherein the material ruin attains venerable status, moving the decay from just happened to ancient history. The house becomes cast in the tones of history rather than in the present day; a relic of a simpler time when humans lived in harmony with nature and a reminder of the mortality of life on Earth.
This temporal distancing does more than age Shishmaref; it also casts its Inupiat residents in the shadows of the past. The idea that the photograph of the ruin is a representation of a lifestyle lost to time portrays the invisible residents as living in the “there and then” rather than the “here and now” in which the viewers reside. Shishmaref as a place is both the immediate past, where its fall has just happened, and in a more historic past, one where the ruin has taken on an antique quality. Depicting the fallen house, and in turn Shishmaref in its entirety, as existing in a time not contemporary with our own makes their intellectual and development inferior, much like early muskets are perceived as inferior to today’s automated firearms. Although the viewer and residents share the same historic time and challenge of climate change, in reality the textual rhetoric and visual vocabularies of fallen house’s narrative systemically distances Shishmaref from its observers and places them in an outlying, different temporal frame. This denying of contemporaneity also denies the residents political agency. Shishmaref is seen not as partners or equals in confronting climate change, but as distant victims removed from the decision-making process of climate change policy, with the assumption that any climate policy would better such a peripheral space. The distancing, displacing, and disenfranchisement of indigenousness that comes with historicizing the representation again highlights the power dynamics of visual narratives, explored by post-colonial scholars like Derek Gregory.
Of course, there is a glaring point of departure between the compositions of Dutch vanitas paintings and contemporary photography on Arctic sea ice and shoreline erosion. While the former is static in its actuality, assembled from inanimate objects from the artist studios, the latter is not. The impacts of climate change on Arctic landscapes is continuous, intensifying, and accelerating. These photographs do more than juxtapose vanities with inevitable bereavement; they document the unambiguous effects of human material culture on Earth. This may be the final crossover of these two visual forms, for beyond their aesthetic ambitions, seventeenth century Dutch vanitas paintings were meant compel viewers to repent for the vanities of their luxuries and earthly indulgences. Though the mortality symbolized by Pieter Claesz’s skull is inevitable, the mortality of Earth is not. Perhaps, in this way, the publication and exhibition Degrees of North: Representations and Evolutions of the Anthropocene acts as its own vanitas – an assemblage of Arctic visuals that document humanity’s actions and consequences, and ultimately acts as a call to action – an appeal to viewers across the globe to consider their consumption and act to mitigate their climate impact. In 1628 as in 2018, compositions of vanitas compel their viewers to interpret, reflect, and ultimately act towards a better future for Arctic landscapes, inhabitants, and our shared planet.
Dr. Victoria Herrmann is the President and Managing Director of The Arctic Institute. In addition to managing the Institute and Board of Directors, her research and writing focus on climate change, community adaptation, resilient development, and migration. Victoria has testified before the U.S. Senate, served as the Alaska Review Editor for the Fourth National Climate Assessment, contributes to The Guardian and Scientific American on climate policy, and was named one of the most 100 influential people in climate policy worldwide in 2019 by Apolitical. She has published in many peer-review journals and her expert opinion has appeared on CNN, BBC, and NPR among others.
 Maldonado, J.K., Shearer, C., Bronen, R., Peterson, K. and Lazrus, H., 2013. The impact of climate change on tribal communities in the US: displacement, relocation, and human rights. Climatic Change, 120(3), pp.601-614.