Miracles of beauty in the flowing of time
by Andrea Lerda
On the 2nd of November 2021, a new conquest flag was planted in Antarctica’s ice sheet. Captain Carlos Mirpuri, having piloted an Airbus A340 plane that had taken off from Cape Town a few hours before, proudly commented on the landing operations of the first commercial flight to Antarctica: “This is history! This is a memorable event!”. The flag of the Portuguese charter company HiFly could be seen fluttering between the pure white of the snow and the intense blue of the sky.
A few years earlier, in September 2016, the Crystal Serenity cruise ship carrying 1,600 people on board, escorted by the icebreaker RRS Ernest Shackleton, was the largest tourist vessel (of the ultra-luxury brand Crystal Cruise) to cross the Northwest Passage.
Who knows what Ernest Shackleton, captain of the Endurance expedition, would have said: in 1915 he saw his boat literally crushed by the ice of the Weddell Sea, forcing him and his crew to trek for eight hundred miles before finding safety in Grytviken, South Georgia. Moreover, who knows what Vittorio Sella, Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile and all the explorers that just one hundred years ago contributed – thanks to their historical enterprises – towards creating part of that collective imagination that surrounds snow that to this day has a magnetic allure for the human soul.
Time passes and the evolution of new global climatic conditions are contributing towards the creation of scenarios, which alter how we live the experience of snow, ice and winter.
Flying to Antarctica, sailing through the icy waters of the Arctic Sea (perhaps contemplating the final crumbling of polar caps, whilst sipping a drink sitting in the comfortable armchair of a cabin with a panoramic view) are unprecedented opportunities for prêt-à-porter exploration, which allow us to be a part of this rapidly evolving imaginary.
For a number of years, during the winter period, a new Middle Eastern tourism market has brought about seventy-thousand tourists to the small Austrian resort of Zell am See from Gulf States. When temperatures in those places can easily reach fifty degrees, Zell am See becomes a favourite destination for “temporary migrants” in search of snowy landscapes that seduce and refresh them.
In the Himalayan plateau of Ladakh, which has always been a cold high-altitude desert, glaciers have greatly shrunk; life, here like elsewhere, depends on the water that flows downstream, necessary for agriculture and the needs of its population. To cope with the water emergency, the Indian engineer Sonam Wangchu has developed a system made of ice stupas: real temporary glaciers produced by unused water during the winter.
Since 2019, in Veduchi, a small ski resort in the North Caucasus, winter sports enthusiasts can experience the longest ski slope made of artificial materials in the world. A green plastic carpet, 1130 meters long, creates an effect of disorientation within our way of seeing and understanding snowy mountains.
At this point, an image takes over my mind: an army of huge cannons, relentlessly blowing artificial snow on the Antarctic. The last bastion of winter survives thanks to an artificially recreated scenario. It is the dystopian hypothesis of a plausible future.
If we omit from this thought the eco-systemic implications, according to which the survival of humankind on Earth depends on water, are we able to imagine a future without snow? What consequences could its disappearance generate in our emotional, cultural and social sphere? These are questions that arise from the progressive change in the bond between us and snow that has lasted for centuries. It is a bond made of metaphors, stories and emotional nuances derived from the ongoing relationship between nature and culture, between natural and artificial, which has evolved because of the discoveries made by technology and science and which over time has acquired shape through artistic representations, poetic narratives and musical compositions.
With their graceful dance, their slow and hypnotic fall from the sky above us, snowflakes - those “miracles of beauty” that Wilson Bentley wrote about in the late nineteenth century - could seem a magical event with an eternal character, an inexplicable and timeless gift, which reaches us from high above like a divine homage. However, snow, and the flakes that forms it, are ontologically the emblem of change and metamorphosis, of the ephemeral and momentary. A presence born to be changeable, in whose perpetual transformation resides its vital and regenerating power.
According to the theory of Snowball Earth, introduced in 1992 by Joseph Kirschvink of the California Institute of Technology, “an imaginary astronaut who between 2.4 and 2.3 billion years ago passed in the vicinity of our planet, which was born just over two billion years earlier, instead of the blue ball […] would have seen a completely white sphere. The so-called «Uronian or Makganyene glaciation»“.
“Memento homo quia nix es, et in nix reverteris”, I feel like saying. Because according to some scientists, our planet could be destined to going back to being a frozen sphere as a paradoxical consequence of the global warming caused by our species.
The process of alteration of the natural balance is now almost unstoppable. However, if we decide to accept this perspective, acknowledging the disturbance that we like parasites have produced in our habitat and the destiny that we risk heading towards, it might seem like that we are writing a new chapter in the book of snow, which is destined to reclaim the space that we stole from it.
It is within this scenario that the narrative of Over Time moves. An intertwined story, in which several worlds dialogue at the same time – the artistic, scientific, and historical ones – and through which an updated reconnaissance on the topos of snow takes shape, through the use of a multifocal lens.
With the Over Time project, Laura Pugno makes a meta-temporal journey within the numerous meanings that, today more than ever, make this natural element a cultural, environmental and social factor at the same time. Chronologically her latest work on this subject, Over Time explores the reasons for our emotional bond and our need to live, study and recreate snow in the Anthropocene era. The video installation, created as part of the Italian Council IX (2020) call, is a multidirectional journey through time; an open reading on the relationship between the human species and nature, with its paradoxes and contradictions. It is the story of a profound link between this white matter and human beings; the investigation of a historical process which we are all part of – both on a physical and emotional level – in which many possible scenarios help to feed our need for snow.
The narration of the work, conceived as a three-channel video projection, addresses the complexity of this theme through a story with a strong emotional involvement, inviting the viewer to observe our relationship with this natural element simultaneously from a speculative and intimate point of view.
Conceived like three windows that at the same time open to observe multiple scenarios related to the world of snow, the videos are presented in a non-hierarchical way, allowing the viewer to freely observe the images and participate in the work by creating associations and reflections that draw on their own archive of memories and sensations.
A sound very similar to a rustle precedes the start of the images for a few moments. The soundtrack, created by sound designer Magda Drodz, is the narrative voice that welcomes us, accompanying us throughout the work’s entire development. An alternation of sound sensations, melodies, rhythms and textures - some electronic, some natural - characterize, conduct and comment the visual experience.
It is clear from the outset that we find ourselves immersed in an archive of references that simultaneously mix present, past and future.
In the first video, set at 2,901 meters above sea level, near the Angelo Mosso Institute, located on the Passo dei Salati, in the Monte Rosa massif, Michele Freppaz, a snow expert at the University of Turin, is engaged in a series of scientific analyses on snow. Like every year in the winter period, the researcher reaches this location to record and evaluate the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of the snowpack.
Observing his conduct, the conventional collective imagination of science as something that observes and studies the natural world through analytical and detached eyes disappears. The approach to the investigation and study of the state of the snow’s health is mediated by a strong use of sensory and experiential components. The scientific analysis, which evolves using visual observation, as well as tactile and sound evaluations, suggests a synesthetic reading method for the material that composes snow, casting an unprecedented light on the figure of the scientist. The loving gestures that the snow scientist reserves for his dearest patient and the sense of great respect that emerges from his actions create the image of a science that opens up to the study of the world without forgetting that it is matter and spirit at the time.
The solitude of the researcher, immersed in this “mantle of mysterious beauty”, – hard at work to share his message of concern or perhaps of hope to the world, – reveals a strong sense of physical and emotional participation, evoking the image of a modern-day Cassandra.
The second video, set inside a factory near Cremona, documents the production process of spray snow. The images alternate between shots of the laboratory in which the chemical formula of this substance is created, the moments in which its qualitative characteristics are evaluated, and the packaging phases. The camera’s lens enters the machine, which the contemporary world has entrusted with the task of artificially recreating memories, sensations and emotions related to snowy landscapes. The fascination exerted by the possibility of reproducing the magic of Christmas is combined with the sense of drama for the possibility of a future, in which all that remains of winter is pressurized inside the metal of a spray can. The platoon of aluminium containers, animated by the movement of the conveyor belts, carry compounds towards homes all over the world, where snow in the form of a simulacrum risks gradually replacing emotions and sensations of an authentic nature.
In the third video, made in the woods of the Zegna Oasis, the camera focuses a human figure that is walking in a snowy landscape. The viewer’s eyes follow the unstoppable progress of the figure. It is a body on a journey, without a set destination, apparently disinterested in the sublime beauty that surrounds it, insensitive to the intoxicating natural force in which it is immersed.
The different shots allow us to observe the figure’s progress at times from a close position, at times from aerial shots. He is alone, in an indefinite time, lowered into a suspended dimension. Laura Pugno chooses this image charged with metaphors to bring into the work the whole of humanity, on whose shoulders the weight of their condition and responsibilities rests.
The symbolic experience of the crossing offers a series of possible readings: a final time, the scene of a farewell with snow or perhaps a new time of redemption, in which a white bath between white messengers becomes a cathartic experience of regeneration and awakening.
The reverential delicacy with which Laura Pugno develops the narrative of the work and her way of telling the profound relationship between us humans and snow, has the flavour of caring. It is “the caring of the world” to quote the philosopher Elena Pulcini, the “caring of the Titan who desperately wants to be a human again”, crossed by the “boundless nostalgia of his own limitation, fragility and vulnerability”. It is the testimony of a time of transformation, of the need for a new affective awareness that regenerates in us a sense of empathy with the universe that surrounds us.
By choosing snow as the spokesperson for this message, Laura Pugno fuels an extremely urgent ecological reflection. Moreover, she does so by resorting to the power of beauty, the one hidden among the physical laws of creation, in the inexplicable perfection of nature, a substance that nourishes our soul and quenches our body until the last snowflake falls on Earth.