Even if you don’t believe in astrology, you can hardly deny that our lives are ruled by the planets. We get up when the sun rises and go to bed after it sets. Our calendar is based on days, months and years that relate to the way the moon orbits the rotating earth. This relationship seems to have been programmed into our genes from prehistory. ‘Astronomical timekeeping’ is still entirely relevant, even though we modern humans have drifted away from it.
With the advent of industrialisation, railways and automated production processes, we came to need accurate, universally synchronised time. The clock and telling time have become more and more important, and this kind of time seems to have less to do with the planets and nature than with technology, progress and capitalism. Nevertheless, most watches and clocks contain a tiny bit of nature. Whether you are on the open sea somewhere between Norway and Iceland or high in the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland – the walhalla of expensive watch brands – the precise time of day is determined with the aid of a small crystal of the naturally occurring mineral quartz.
Three years ago Swiss artist Douglas Mandry read an article about the use of quartz in combination with nanotechnology. It was the start of a journey towards his latest project, Monuments. The article described how a small disc of quartz could store 360 terabytes of data for millions of years. Mandry was fascinated by the fact that a little piece of primeval nature was the safest medium on which to store the entire history of humanity until long after our species dies out. We might well ask who will be around to read these modern hieroglyphs.
After reading the article, Mandry started to wonder how he could create an artistic project about the human urge to preserve things, about what will remain or be lost in one hundred years from now, about the tension between nature, culture and technology. The beginnings of an answer came when he encountered a team of specialists who wrap the Gurschen glacier in the mountains near Andermatt every year with strips of geotextile. The immense fleece reflects the sun’s rays, so that the huge mound of ice stays cold. When autumn comes the team unwrap the glacier. It works. In fact when the glacier is exposed in autumn, it is occasionally found to have grown. All the same, in the long run these efforts will be fruitless, since the earth is warming too quickly. No amount of wrapping can stop the melt.
Mandry uses the geotextile as the base on which he prints found amateur photographs from the early 20th century showing glaciers in mountainous regions. This brings together very different but avid attempts to hold onto what used to be. The old photos are memories captured by the camera of a majestic, unspoilt landscape, devoid of chairlifts and demarcated ski runs. The time when amateur photographers began going into the mountains, however, marked the start of the golden age of Swiss mass tourism. It is precisely mass tourism and the wasteful behaviour of human beings in general that is causing the worldwide melting of glaciers. The geotextile is the material expression of an effort to protect the frozen landscape – not primarily out of high-minded concern about its disappearance and the impact on the natural world, incidentally, but for fear of losing income from mountain tourism.
Mandry also started making colour photograms of parts of the glacier that were melting away. After a visit he took bits of broken off ice back with him in a coolbox to his home city of Zurich. There, in the darkroom, he put the ice in the enlarger. As the ice melted and dripped onto the photo paper, so that a physical piece of the glacier in its frozen form slowly but permanently transformed, the aura of the glacier appeared in many colours on the paper. Mandry then reproduced the photograms on a glass plate and presented them with the printed geotextile.
Although it was not the original intention, Monuments has become in part a project about climate change – not radical and insistent, but subtle and poetic. ‘There is a lot happening in the world. My work is basically a digestion of it, a way to cope with things that happen without being too political. When I started this project three years ago, climate change was not such a prominent theme in visual art. It is now a real trend. The concern is very important but it is almost getting to be a commercial strategy. My series is still in progress and I don’t want it to look opportunistic. I try to avoid alarmist content by using naive pictures from a hundred years ago.’
As the project evolves, Mandry will go to several different glaciers and use a variety of geotextiles. He is also building a huge, mobile camera obscura which will enable him to create photograms on location. The influence of natural elements will increasingly appear in the image. ‘I can hardly go back to classic photography if it is not really meaningful for the project. For the disappearance of things, especially concerning the landscape or nature, it is important for me to use the ephemeral materials themselves.’ This will ultimately produce an index of the vanished glaciers of Switzerland, an index of frozen time, of geological processes that take an eternity, captured by the principles of photography, the perfect medium for recording time and for preserving sometimes nostalgic memories.