In Human Time

An exhibition in two parts


In Human Time, the first exhibition of the Climate Museum, explored aspects of polar ice, humanity, and temporality through installations of work by Zaria Forman and Peggy Weil. The installation was accompanied in the hallway outside by artifacts and media offering context on ice core science and the Arctic.

The poles of the Earth offer a devastating contradiction. The Arctic has fascinated those of us who come from somewhere else. Implacably vast and frozen; indifferent and unknowable; impossible and impassable. Antarctica is even more inaccessible and forbidding.

This vision of invulnerability is plainly false. Every week of climate news confirms that polar ice is profoundly affected by human activity. It is vanishing on a scale our minds did not evolve to comprehend. Polar ice, far from being untouchable by humanity, is one the clearest and strongest summaries of the massive changes we have caused with our economy and culture.

How does this contradiction between invulnerability and fragility reflect on us? What does polar ice tell us about ourselves?

Zaria Forman,   Whale Bay, Antarctica No. 4, 84x144, 2016.  Original in private collection; reproduction courtesy of Winston Wächter Fine Art.

Zaria Forman, Whale Bay, Antarctica No. 4, 84x144, 2016. Original in private collection; reproduction courtesy of Winston Wächter Fine Art.

Through the work of Forman and Weil, In Human Time examines these questions. Humans possess a capacity for awe, creativity, curiosity, the advancement of knowledge and understanding; for beautiful art and brilliant science; for astounding instances of communication and common action. 

We are, in short, defined by qualities permitting reasoned optimism that we can survive the climate crisis. But we are also capable of heedless destruction, a trait that unfortunately requires no elaboration.

This tension spotlights our agency, our ability to decide and act. Which side of our genetic and cultural makeup will we choose? Which will drive our actions?

The installations raise related questions of timescale that give rise to the exhibition title. The oldest ice in the Greenland Ice Sheet came into being one million years ago, snowflake by snowflake, a hundred times longer ago than we started farming. Forman's drawing may look at first like a photograph captured in a fraction of a second, but the work is revealed to be the product of weeks of touches of blue and gray, drawn by hand. We learn this in a time-lapse video that looks mesmerizingly fast—especially in relation to Weil's four-and-a-half hour video descent, the apparently slow pacing of which can pull the viewer into a meditative suspension. But some of the one-meter ice core sections down which she draws us to the beginning of the Greenland Ice Sheet capture four hundred years of time. The slow film is the fast one.  

These incongruities and slippages bring time into focus. Meaningful shared action demands a stronger awareness of time, of both continuum and urgency, than it is comfortable or natural to hold. James Baldwin said of the struggle for racial equality and our common humanity that "[t]here is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now." Human beings will be living with climate change past the foreseeable horizon. What that looks like will depend on decisions we make together about our thought, dialogue, and action—now.


The Climate Museum is pleased and grateful to present this exhibition in partnership with the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at the Parsons School of Design.