Patricia Carr Morgan’s latest art exhibition “i love you don’t leave me” contextualizes the scope of climate change in moving ways. In an interview with Atmos, the Tucson-based artist shares what glaciers can tell us about our past and our future—and why climate change as a form of art is part of the fight (and the solution) against a warming world.
In 2018, a Yale Program on Climate Change Communication study told us that while most Americans recognize climate change, few actually discuss it in the course of their daily routines. Our curiosity leads us to questions like What accounts for the gap between science and action on climate change? and What can we do to more effectively mobilize participation? But, often, what compels us to engage with nature in real time is a feeling that isn’t always found embedded within pie charts and graphs—but a reaction that comes from within.
Climate change as a form of art can be mutually conflicting: It calls on the darker parts of ourselves to pause and listen to the cries of a dying planet yet doesn’t feel all that actionable at the same time. But if storytelling is part of the solution to the climate dilemma, then collections of photographic work, installations, and performance art are just as effective. At least that’s what Patricia Carr Morgan, a Tucson-based artist looking to contextualize the massive scope of climate change by making a more emotional plea, does through her work. Morgan’s latest exhibition “i love you don’t leave me” makes a case for glaciers that are melting as we speak.
“What compels me about glaciers is that they encapsulate our past while also determining our future,” she tells Atmos. “They each contain the story of our planet, and their disappearance can and will have major impacts on our habitats despite being so out of reach from our everyday lives.”
Morgan’s series of glacier photography encompasses her trips to Greenland and Antarctica where she was devastated to see swathes of heating ice succumbing to the ocean—an often overlooked element of climate change for those who live hundreds to thousands of miles from the nearest glacier. But, as she puts it, glaciers are the genesis of many losses. In our interview, she reflects on everything from the significance of silence within the climate crisis and what a day in the life of photographing glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland is really like. Here’s a hint: it’s as magical as it is sobering.
Walk us through a day of shooting for you in Antarctica or Greenland.
Patricia Carr Morgan
After some morning tea, I pull on my jeans, rain pants, rubber boots, camisole, flannel shirt, parka, fingerless gloves, and hat. Adding two new flash cards to my parka pocket, I get my two cameras—one with a wide-angle lens, another with a telephoto lens—and head out to the Zodiac rubber raft.
It is surprisingly warm, so I partially unzip my parka as we head across the calm sea to a nearby iceberg. After getting a wide shot, I focus on the smaller details that I find so elegant. Moving around the iceberg, we find a tunnel through the ice that reveals colors of deep blue, turquoise, and green that have been created by the pressure of tons of ice throughout the centuries. It’s huge and majestic. While wishing I were closer and leaning forward to get a better angle, the tunnel suddenly collapses, crashing into the sea, sending waves that make our Zodiac seem small and fragile. As the day continues, I see leopard seals with their sinister smiles, relaxing, waiting for a passing penguin.
After making our way around more icebergs of varying sizes and colors, we land on a rocky shore where I photograph Adélie penguins as they leave their waddle to fish. They are unafraid and show no interest in me and, of course, penguins are irresistible. I get multiple shots of them diving and climbing out of the water to go back to their mates. I move inland to the waddles and pull my scarf over my nose to dampen the potent smells and admire the fuzzy young and the adults who are still sitting on eggs. Back on the ship, I lunch and go up to the bridge to photograph there. The captain takes us through a narrow gorge with slashes of black rock cutting through the snow and we softly emerge through the fog. In a new location, we disembark from the Zodiacs and head out to very different formations of icebergs and glaciers. Over a late dinner, we discuss the day and I head back to my room to download the day’s photographs, looking forward to another day of shooting.
The climate change conversation is so multifaceted—fossil fuels, oceans, forests, frontline communities, sustainability, etc. What is it about glaciers, for you, that tells such a comprehensive story?
Fresh water is required for life and 90 percent of it is in Antarctica. The Thwaites Glacier, also known as the Doomsday Glacier, is particularly susceptible to the warming climate. According to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, warm ocean water is probably melting it from below and is decreasing its stability. It has already been reported to be losing eight times as much ice a year as it was in the late 1990s. This glacier alone is already responsible for 4% of the sea-level rise, and if it collapses, it will increase sea levels about 25 inches. As the ice decreases in size, less heat is reflected, the salinity of the water changes, currents shift, and food sources are relocated or eliminated, the food chain is shifted and there is widespread extinction of varied species.
I could go on and on about this one particular glacier, and perhaps that’s why it’s also known as the Doomsday Glacier—but certainly, for me, glaciers are the genesis of many losses.
Why the title “i love you don’t leave me”?
When I was in Antarctica, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the unending whiteness. It was intimidating and dangerous, but it was also the most sublime place on Earth I had ever seen. Although ice carves through mountains to create prairies and lakes, its strength is diminishing every day as it melts, drips away, and fails to be replenished. I was in love, but it was like longing for something that is already slipping away.
It’s been said that storytelling around climate change, not just facts and numbers, is what gets people motivated. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Throughout history, cultures have been passed down through storytelling and imagemaking. This is how we share emotions we want others to experience with us. Facts and numbers are important, science explains what is happening and why—but our emotions cause us to care.
For my exhibition “Blue Tears,” for example, I wanted people to have a very emotional response to what they were seeing and experiencing. At 17-feet tall and 10-feet wide, the 18 silk panels imprinted with glacier photographs tower above the viewer in the installation. These veils, one by one, float to the floor throughout the exhibition, diminishing “Blue Tears” over time. It tells a story of beauty, love, and loss.
How do you think works like this get people to care about places so far away that they may never even visit?
This is a problem that needs all of us. It requires scientists to warn and inform us, citizens to care, leaders to take action, writers, artists, politicians, school teachers, and museums to also tell the story because it is a global story. At Tucson Museum of Art, viewing “Blue Tears” with the docents was the first time some of the young school children had heard about global warming. When some of the silk panels with the glacier images floated to the floor, some’; people even had tears in their eyes. This is all to say that art has a very particular role in realizing empathy.
It is my hope to express the beauty of the glaciers, our collective neglect, and my personal sorrow in ways that viewers can also feel such loss and be compelled to act.
Patricia Carr Morgan’s “Blue Tears” exhibited at the Tucson Museum of Art from January, 2019 to April, 2019 and is being planned through the museum as a touring exhibition for the near future.