COAL + ICE is a documentary photography and video exhibition about climate change.
The photography in COAL + ICE is drawn from diverse materials and spans a very long time period, from the use of glass negatives to smartphone movies and computer-generated video. Almost all of the works presented in COAL + ICE are part of a larger series of photographs or authored body of work. We have tried to highlight each photographer’s individual approach, both to their photography and to their subjects. We do not treat the photographs in COAL + ICE as illustrations of a story—they are the story. COAL + ICE is about humanity—the resilience of humankind, of miners and their families, but also of those already dealing with the consequences of climate change—and not in the least about the humanity of the participating photographers.
The entryway of COAL + ICE forms a riddle, combining photographs of melting glaciers in the Himalaya shot by mountaineer and photographer David Breashears, with historical and contemporary portraits of coal miners.
From here, the photography is presented almost entirely through projection in a dark and immersive space with limited text and subtle ambient soundscapes. We juxtapose photographs, sequence them, and project details of images. As the spectator moves through the 30,000-square-foot space, a story unfolds, different for each individual visitor. The photography in COAL + ICE is largely divided into two groups: photos of people and photos of landscapes devoid of people.
The first main section of the exhibition portrays the work, lives, and struggles of coal miners from across the world, from the distant past to the present. The changing depictions of miners over time and place reflect our complex relationship to coal. Coal powered the industrial revolution. And it is coal that fueled China’s recent rise. The cost of this reliance can be seen in the work of many of the Chinese photographers in the exhibition. Coal has also emitted the lion’s share of carbon dioxide into the world’s atmosphere, triggering what we now know as climate change.
At the center of the exhibition, we present a series of large-scale projections of landscapes almost devoid of people but altered by our continued reliance on fossil fuels, from the vanishing glaciers of the Himalaya and melting polar ice, to landscapes devastated by hurricanes and floods, as well as the more conventional environmental destruction of strip mining. We see found footage of contemporary coal mining emphasizing the scale of production today. In contrast, we have more expressive work showing the remnants of landscapes formerly impacted by coal.
The third section is comprised of recent work by photographers portraying people who are already experiencing the human consequences of climate change through droughts, floods, fires, and forced migration.
We end with the future: with images of renewable energy solutions and words giving us poetry to reflect on.
COAL + ICE is a collaborative effort to create an immersive visual experience offering the potential for public engagement with the climate crisis. It aims not to scare, but to mobilize.
—Jeroen de Vries and Susan Meiselas
Co-curators, COAL + ICE
About Designer Jeroen de Vries
There is something I learned in my early days as a campaigner against the War in Vietnam and against nuclear armament, almost half a century ago: not to scare, but to mobilize.
My heroes in these early years were:
—Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) architect, a member of the Dutch De Stijl Group. He is the man of the zig-zag chair. He wrote of “the experience of space as an existential necessity.” I hope you hear the echo of his words in the exhibition.
—Herbert Beyer (1900-1985), who was a prominent Bauhaus member. I clearly remember the shock I felt when I saw his diagram of the extended field of vision. It explains that our field of vision is not flat but spherical. After he left Germany he designed a series of Wartime exhibitions at MoMA. The art school I had gone to was closely modeled on the Bauhaus.
—And the Dadaist John Heartfield (1891-1968), famous for his anti-Nazi photomontages.
The first exhibition I ever put together and designed was about the war in Vietnam. It was my very first exercise in editing photography to tell a story. The first photo exhibition in a museum that I designed was a retrospective of Eva Besnyo (1910-2003), the Hungarian-Dutch photographer. To her the idea of hanging framed photos on a wall was anathema. We created a starkly spatial installation with bleeding photos. Eva had lived the Bauhaus years in Berlin and had handed Robert Capa his first camera there.
After the Eva Besnyo exhibition many photo installations would follow. I would like to mention two of them that were particularly important to me.
With film-maker and photographer Johan van der Keuken (1938-2001) I created the very experimental Body and City project, in 1998. We tried to “investigate the space between film and photography” in a series of very large spatial installations. This included a nine meter high steel tower from which film fragments and photographic images were projected. We traveled the world with it. In the US we presented Body and City in the Wexner Center for the Arts.
I created a retrospective of Koen Wessing (1942-2011) in 2000. It became, as I wrote at the time, a search for the meaning of Wessing’s photographs, but also for the meaning of documentary photography in general—for ways to deal with it, to look at it. I tried to develop forms to give sophisticated photographers such as Wessing a new space, as it were, to let their work breathe in a way that is not possible in a newspaper or coffee table book. This resulted in a spatial installation in which photographs hung freely in the space in a circular set-up of eleven projection screens on different levels, completely surrounding the spectator.
All these many people I have mentioned here left their traces with me, and in fact together they shaped COAL + ICE.