by Max Blue
This year alone, Californians have seen plenty of climate-related adversity: devastating wildfires, a seemingly endless summer and unending drought. Meanwhile, with hurricanes and floods battering the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast, the United States government continues to deny a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to humankind’s role in these disasters. 10,000 Fahrenheit, a group exhibition at the San Francisco Art Commission’s main gallery, timed to coincide with September’s Global Climate Action Summit and the World Cities Culture Forum in November, features works from nine artists who use solar heat and sunlight as the basis for photographic and video works that, together, suggest the possibility of a corrective intervention.
The exhibition is prefaced in the foyer gallery by a solo exhibition of Young Suh’s Wildfires, a series of 23 digital prints shot in northern California between 2008 and 2013. The most salient feature of these haunted photos is their depiction of every aspect of wildfires except the blazes: firefighters wading through banks of ash; swimmers wading into a noticeably diminished Russian River; a tranquil field of wildflowers seen through a haze of smoke. One photo in
particular, Uncanny Resemblance (2008), shows a suburban house that might be viewed as idyllic, were it not for the bizarre hue of the sunset in the background: the telltale sign of a wildfire. By showing the devastation of climate change as peripheral, Young’s pictures suggest an unpromising recalibration: a “new normal” that is everything but. [Click to read a full review of an earlier exhibit of Wildfires.]
By contrast, 10,000 Fahrenheit doesn’t attempt to document the affected landscape so much as create an artistic index of the sun’s far-reaching impact.
Chris Duncan does so by hanging a large piece of fabric in a window for a six-month period, during which time the sun bleaches an off-center rectangular shape over which he applies paint. Radiating from that painted shape is a pattern of sun-bleached wrinkles. What we see is a collapse of time, evidence of the Earth’s rotation around the sun accrued on a single canvas, a union of natural deterioration and the inflection of the artist’s hand. While Duncan’s work displays the destructive power of sunlight, his control of its duration and the act of painting into it, reminds us that the process of decay needn’t result in disfiguration; it can produce beauty, too. When Duncan lists “sun” and “time” as materials, he sums up the ethos of the exhibition perfectly. Each artist in the show could do the same.
That is certainly the case with San Francisco photo-legend Linda Connor who submits contact prints made by exposing glass-plate negatives of solar eclipses – originally created during the 19th century at Lick Observatory – in direct sunlight. Besides evoking cosmic events, her pictures remind us of the distance, measurable in light years, that the sun’s rays travel before they reach our eyes. Yet because photography requires the capture of light, Connor, in making these prints, posits the potential for photography without light, that is, a preview of what photography might look like after the sun’s predicted implosion.
Chris McCaw, another San Franciscan, creates one-of-a-kind prints tracing the trajectory of the sun across the sky. Over the duration of a long exposure, sunlight magnified through the lens of his hand-built camera burns an arc into photo paper: a an incision that recalls the work of Lucio Fontana. The photograph on display here, North Slope, Alaska, within the Arctic Circle (2015) is the visual record of a 36-hour exposure, made at a time of year when the sun never sets over the Arctic Circle. The result is a literal artifact of the sun’s power. [Read a profile of the artist.]
Similarly, in a video documenting the creation of a piece of land art, A Line Describing the Sun (2010), Brooklyn artist William Lamson spent five days in the Southern California desert burning a 366-foot arc into the earth with giant magnifying glass on wheels. It is, essentially, a sped-up, scale model of climate change, its quiet, meditative character underscoring the sheer banality of man-made tragedy.
Two other video pieces feature prominently in the exhibition: Antonia Wright’s Under the water was sand, then rocks, miles of rocks, then fire (2016) and Jean-Pierre Aubé’s 31 soleils (Dawn Chorus) (2010). The first documents the artist walking across a frozen lake dressed in a fanciful costume evocative of dancing flames. It concludes with the artist succumbing to the inevitable plunge. In 31 soleils, a telescopic video of a rising sun is synched to a soundtrack of radio transmissions interrupted by solar emissions, yielding a symphonic cacophony. Both works benefit by being situated in close proximity.
Digital photos by Lisa K. Blatt and the Chicago duo Sarah and Joseph Belknap record solar phenomena. Blatt’s four infrared photos, made with a heat-sensing camera courtesy of NASA, yield abstract color fields ranging from fiery orange to icy blue. Blatt calls them “heatscapes,” toying with the notion of how a post-apocalyptic landscape photograph might be defined.
The Belknaps’ two pieces, Four and Twelve Months of Sunspots, are composite images of screenshots made using NASA’s Space Weather Media Viewer app. During the timespans
denoted by the titles, the artists made screenshots each time they thought of the sun. By correlating patterns of sunspots to patterns of human thought, the Belknap’s suggest that a symbiotic relationship might be within reach.
What’s significant about 10,000 Fahrenheit is that the works on view apprehend climate change through things unseen: heat, the trajectory of the planet, the passage of time, and, in the case of an eclipse, the sun itself, their effects registered more in hindsight than in real time. The works posit human intervention as a kind of artistic détournement: engaging the sun to turn its destructive potential into something positive.
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“10,000 Fahrenheit" and “Young Suh: Wildfires” @ San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery through November 17, 2018. Chris McCaw and William Lamson will be in conversation at SFAC on October 26 at 6:30.
About the author:
Northern California native Max Blue is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and creative writing at the University of San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America and other publications.