EarthPrint (Soil Clod): Kivalina (2)
FFinds, sand, lacquer, EP resin, acrylic, GRP 100x100x5cm Betty Beier (2013) © Christoph Knoch/Eres Stiftung
The soil records the history of humanity.
Soils are archives of man’s interference on our planet. They contain evidence of man’s control of fire in the Stone Age as well as the traces of the radioactive fallout of the Nuclear Age. They are also determinative of the long-term global impacts of the Anthropocene, since man’s actions have far-reaching effects on the geosphere of our planet, and essentially point back to man himself.
Since 1996, the artist Betty Beier addresses and documents those effects through her art project “Earth Print Archive”. Her “Earth Prints” consist of 100×100 cm big replicas of soil surfaces and illustrate extensive ecological changes.
Like a research scientist, the artist undertakes expeditions to regions that have changed radically through human interference. Her projects include the massive Xiaolangdi dam in China or the Sólheimajökull glacier in the south of Iceland, which retreats by about 80 meters per year due to global warming, unearthing landscapes of bizarre beauty. Given the multitude of hot spots of the Anthropocene, there appears to be no limit to her documentation process: The next expeditions to the Zugspitze and to the Amazon Basin in Brazil, where a most controversial dam project is being constructed, are already mapped out.
The artist takes plaster casts of the exact topography on-site, in a process that salvages the upper layers of plants and soil, as well as other finds from the area. The casted imprint is then transferred to a base of synthetic materials and fiberglass. After the plaster has been removed, the artist reconstructs the visual impression of the area’s topography through painting and plastics processing. This complicated process is time-consuming – the meticulous reconstruction of plants can take up to a year.
Thus, her work is much more than a simple reproduction: The creating process incorporates the actual material of the site into the sculptural form of her work. It is also a form of recollection through art – much like a photograph, an Earth Print portrays what has been in a seemingly direct way, but is an artificial portrait nonetheless.
The Earth Prints differ essentially from the pictures that usually define our perception of the planet. In contrast to the satellite images taken from an extremely long distance, they are characterized by their extreme closeness to Earth’s crust. The Earth Prints are a concrete pixel in the global grid of the Earth; their detail is part of a bigger context – it reveals the larger picture.
In a sense, Betty Beier’s work is similar to the methodology of geoscientific collections, where the collecting and critical comparison of soil samples provides an analysis of the far-reaching human interference on our planet.
Her work on the island of Kivalina follows this concept. In the years 2009 and 2010 Betty Beier undertook two six-week long journeys on the Alaskan island which is endangered by rapid coastal erosion as a result of global warming. Equipped with mobile transport boxes for the Earth Prints, which were also the building material for her sleeping accommodation during the expeditions, she lived with the people of Kivalina and experienced first-hand the geological conditions on the island and the effects of climate change. And those effects are manifold: For example, she had to wait for days for the delivery of her plaster. The thawing soil on the mainland is breaking up, releasing methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere. The resulting fog envelops the landing strip of the airfield for days and cuts off the only existing supply route.
The textile remnants of sand bags in her work “Earth Print: Kivalina (1)” reveal the efforts to shield the island from the massive storms by building various dams and barriers. In 2006, a barrier was build out of metal cages filled with sand and rubble in order to protect the island. The construction was destroyed one day after its inauguration, and subsequent efforts to reinforce it with sand bags were not overly successful – the island had to be temporarily evacuated during the next big storm. The weathered synthetic fibers of the sand bags in the Earth Print bear witness to the partially futile efforts to save the island. Since then, the island’s coast has been reinforced with a stone barrier. The stones were transported from the 500 km distant city of Barrow with great effort and expenditure, and the sea wall is supposed to keep the island habitable for the next ten to fifteen years.
Another Earth Print pictures the white crest of waves on the island’s soil and reveals how fast the sea is approaching the village. On the time the Earth Print was taken, this divide between sea and land was barely 10 meters away from Kivalina’s school building.
Another piece of the artist’s work exposes the controversial role of man in Kivalina’s ecosystem, even in the small scale: “Earth Print: Kivalina (5)” portrays soil sparsely covered with coastal vegetation, lined with tire tracks. These are quad tracks – quads being the preferred means of transportation of the islanders. According to the artist, though, this has negative effects on the soil stabilizing vegetation of the island.
Thus, the Earth Prints from Kivalina don’t just visualize the (often abstractly perceived) worldwide consequences of global warming. They are also a symbol for man’s controversial actions – actions which result to destroying our own habitat.
Dr. Daniel Bürkner