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'Icebox' Warms to a Topic Surely Al Gore Would Melt Over

November 13, 2008 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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Environmentally friendly: Artist Shai Zakai at work
Over the past few years, the physical parameters of Philadelphia's art world have rapidly expanded, and the galleries of Northern Liberties now offer some of this city's hottest destinations for seeing cutting-edge contemporary art.

"Global Warming at the Ice Box" denotes both an exhibition and a gallery. "The Icebox" is one gallery space at the Crane Arts Building, which houses multiple independent galleries, as well as artist studios.

For this multimedia exhibition of installation art, the Philadelphia Sculptors Association has taken over "The Icebox" space for a combination juried and invited international look at issues of global warming and environmental fragility. Through their choice of 15 artists, curators Cheryl Harper and Leslie Kaufman (president of Philadelphia Sculptors) have assembled a provocative visual essay that runs through this Saturday.

Even when subjected to rigorous curatorial discipline, as is this show, a group exhibition of installation art -- although it may be thematically coherent -- offers particular challenges. As far as I could tell, most of the works were made for other spaces and were previously exhibited elsewhere.

Each does not "rub" metaphoric "elbows" comfortably with its neighbor. The space, while large, is still not generous enough to contain the ideas presented here. As there is much that's worthwhile to see, the patience needed to work through the visual confusion will be rewarded.

Part of the problem is that these are conceptual works, wherein the "backstory" is the real story. One needs time to first engage visually and then to discern each artist's message about environmental destruction.

One of the most accessible works is "Euthenic Landscape: Suburban Setting with Clouds," by Jason Lee. Photographic display light boxes are strewn on the floor around a picket fence, suggestive of a home-garden setting. However, instead of real grass and flowers, Lee's light-box landscape contains only photographs of a nature that may, one day, be only a memory. Is this the home garden of the future?

Canadian artist Michael Alstad references Arctic ice melt through an easily understandable combination of Styrofoam, water, video and miniature polar bear forms. In a similarly accessible vein, Ben Pinder's otherwise-delightful conquest of Antarctica, "Return to Symzonia," unfortunately displaces the polar bear from its rightful home in the Arctic to the Antarctic. Could this have been purposeful? I could not tell.

Andrew Chartier and Ralf Sander are each especially adept at humorously adapting technology, changing its destructive force to one that ameliorates global warming in ways that are reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Ecological Example

The centerpiece of the exhibition, occupying the largest space, is Israeli artist Shai Zakai's tour de force "Forest Tunes: The Library 1995-2008." Zakai, an artist, curator and activist, is the director/founder of "The Israeli Forum for Ecological Art" and holds an M.A. in art and environmental policy.

A catalogue accompanies the "Forest Tunes" installation and is a worthwhile purchase, as the artist has much to say. While the viewer will be impressed by the physical construction, it is the ongoing contemplation of the artist's process and purpose that brings meaning to this work.

To this end, the catalogue is much more than just documentation of an ephemeral event.

Over a time span of 13 years, while traveling throughout Israel and 18 other countries, the artist collected endangered, natural, botanic specimens that are contained here in 167 separately labeled boxes. Each is displayed along with a scientifically inspired specimen card that includes the artist's photograph of the specimen in its original location, along with her pertinent statement.

The boxes are arranged on tiered wooden shelves that line two walls. A photographic mural occupies one wall and a video the other; a table occupies the center. The space, including the floor, the boxes and the table, is entirely black, devoid of color or any associations with growth.

Destruction of the landscape is the story, and the artist drives it home. Only the two natural wooden chairs offer any relief. On the table, files that function much like a library reference catalogue are filled with additional copies of each specimen card. Viewers, sitting at the table, can choose a certain specimen card and then look up the box that contains that specimen.

According to Shai Zakai, "When a work of art creates surprise or wonder that is not limited to the aesthetic level only, it creates from within itself a new way of looking at a tiny fragment of reality, a new thought, if only momentary, that may lead to a broadening of awareness."

For information, visit: www.cranearts.com.

 

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