Today is Earth Day (April 22) and Cornell is celebrating Sustainability Month for the thirteenth consecutive year. Interns at the Johnson have been looking at works in the permanent collection this month for the perspectives they offer about pressing environmental issues.

Iris Kazhmurat ’22 is the Museum’s modern and contemporary art intern for 2020–21.

In 2014, Project Pressure, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the threats to glaciers worldwide through art, commissioned Simon Norfolk to photograph the Lewis Glacier, the largest on Mount Kenya in in Africa. Over the last eighty years, 90 percent of the glacier has melted.

The Lewis Glacier, Mt. Kenya 1963 (B)

Norfolk inscribed the glacier’s perimeter from 1934, 1963, 1987, and 2004 into the then-current 2014 terrain of Mt. Kenya with “fire lines” by overlaying GPS coordinates onto historical data about the size and shape of the Lewis Glacier. This enabled him to map the glacier’s vanished edges on the actual landscape. He hid small flashlights among the rocks to trace the glacier’s path, so he knew exactly what route to take with his camera. Norfolk then walked those lines slowly in the middle of the night, holding a length of a string made from shaggy white carpet soaked in gasoline and strapped to a garden rake as a makeshift torch. Setting his camera to a very long exposure allowed him to produce a series of photographs that showed the outlines of the now-gone glaciers lit up in fire trails.

The complete group of images is breathtaking and make an environmental point about climate change far more convincingly—and viscerally—than a ream of statistical data. The greatest challenge for environmental activists today is communicating the reality of climate change. A picture of a glacier without a historical reference fails to convey the glacier’s relative instability. By representing change over time in singular images, Norfolk’s photographs visualize in ways that pure science and data cannot. The swath of exposed earth between the artist’s fiery path and the distant edge of the remaining ice—the difference between the glacier’s historical and present boundaries—confirms the glacier’s relentless melting. This melting is depicted incrementally, resulting in what Norfolk calls a “stratified history of the glacier’s retreat.”

Norfolk makes a tangential case that humans are involved in climate change. His work presents a scathing indictment of human responsibility for global warming by relying on the natural environment to convey its narrative. The fire line fueled by petroleum delineates the glacier’s historical edge. It represents the careless and unrelenting burning of fossil fuels that has directly contributed to the glacier’s melting and irreversible climate change.

Most of us have most likely never felt so directly indicted by melting ice. Our glaciers are melting remarkably quickly in geological terms. However, it seems slow for human imagination to grasp. Right now, the challenge is to find a way to make the slow deterioration of the world’s beauty feel urgent and overwhelming. Norfolk’s photographs serve as a call to action.