In Vanessa Albury’s show, Arctic, Future Relics the photo-based artist weaved together carefully chosen materials to describe the concept of decline. Composed of seven art pieces on view at NURTUREart in New York between September and October, her show asked an audience to use nostalgia to reflect on the future, and not the past.
Each of her pieces takes the form of large window-sized photos depicting glaciers from the Earth’s northernmost polar region. Delectable pieces of driftwood and found lumber accompanied each analog photo along the photos’ top or bottom borders; the artist took lumber specifically from abandoned homes she found. A mix of untraditional steps were added to the photo development process: (1) collecting dirt from her surrounding environment and placing it into the photo baths, (2) agitating the chemicals across inconsistently on some sections of the photograph in the developing process, (3) using a haku brush to alter those layers. As a result, viewers see varied layers imprinted on the surface of each large image, an effect which Albury calls “veil-like”.
The draw of this artwork comes from the future it proffers — the depletion of glacial ice. Her choice of using the word Relic, also becomes a bravely determined position in the larger conversation about Climate Change, a conversation known for past denials. Albury’s perception of diminishing glaciers stands in line with a growing number of scientists, politicians, journalists, and global constituents who believe that our polar regions are in danger, and that we face a damaging future if in fact, glaciers become relics.
Albury obtained the images in this show while traveling to 18 different landings around the Arctic Ocean in 2014. As a particpant of the Arctic Circle Residency (a program that takes multi-disciplined researchers around the Arctic), she sailed the icy region for several weeks in a ship filled with writers, musicians, artists, and scientists, each selected for a residency space. Albury set out to study the patterns of light affecting the region during the summer solstice of 2014 – at the time, she aimed to collect the different possibilities of capturing light using cameras, projectors, photo paper, and lighting conditions, and since leaving the program, the majority of her projects have spiralled from this Arctic Residency starting point.
The strength of Arctic, Future Relics comes from the artist’s ability to create nostalgia for a subject that lies in the present, and not entirely in the past yet. Her subjects are not even truly alive but they can generate an emotional response, especially when combined with the pieces of old, weathered wood; both glaciers and wood communicate the feeling of being forgotten. As the glaciers in Albury’s images physically fade in real time, so does analog photography. Today, greater numbers of consumers gravitate toward digital technology and as a result, analog photos continue to lessen. While thinking about the components of this artwork, I felt the need to learn more about nostalgia and photography and I wanted to find a way to verbalize why those two ideas seem to naturally work so well together. My research led me to a segment of Susan Sontag’s 1977 essay, “Melancholy Objects.” In this piece, the critic connects history and photography and determines that the latter allows us to commodify the former. Specifically, Sontag writes of how “Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgements by the generalized pathos” (1). Those words could describe Albury’s nostalgia. Darkly, we may even see how this concept can be pushed further and further until it becomes a borderline form of manipulation. Across more than one nation this year, consider how messages parading under the guise of nostalgia have persuaded so many constituents. Albury’s work differs. She skillfully creates emotion in a place where emotion is lacking; earth’s glaciers, and her nostalgia forces us to look ahead, not behind.
- Sontag, Susan. “Melancholy Objects” On Photography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977, page 64.