For Westerners, “ice art” conjures up images of elaborately carved swans, horse-drawn carriages, castles and the like.
Popular in shopping malls and five-star hotels, this luxurious kitsch startles due to the immense amount of time and effort put into creating the temporary spectacles. Ice art can also be found in northeast China, while in Scandinavia ice hotels draw high-end tourists. Such novelty can carry a high price.
In Southeast Asia, however, ice is anything but a luxury – its something that can be seen carted around a market – and this is reflected in how artists in the region use it in their work.
Loeum Lorn’s exhibit at Java Café is a case in point.
Yesterday, no more uses ice for a powerfully understated celebration of transience and transformation.
The artist, who has been experimenting with ice for more than six years, works with the large rectangular blocks that can be found in markets, but instead of slicing them up for sale, he stands them upright – to resemble at once an easel, a tower, a body, even a linga – then pours paint down their surface. As the colours swirl and slide, the ice melts and fractures: an event Loeum photographs.
These photographs comprise the mainstay of his exhibits, but a video of the process is also on display in the current show and the process was demonstrated at the opening, adding an element of performance art.
His melting sculptures captivate passersby and art enthusiasts with their kaleidoscopic flurry of colour and their striking simplicity. His emphasis on the constantly changing and impermanent nature of ice, and on the humblest demonstrations of beauty, demonstrates the centrality of Buddhism to his practice. He chooses paint, he says, that invokes a feeling of “gentleness and peace”.
There’s a sumptuousness to his images. Printed in archival ink on white canvas, the photos are so delicate and organic-looking that many will mistake them for paintings. “I always try to look for those small details and creations,” he says, “and I see very deep mysterious stories inside.”
Yesterday, no more is a kind of parallel to the cycle of life. “My photographs are what’s left behind, like a memory,” he suggests, “and this I think is the connection between my work and the dharma.”
Burmese artist Aung Naing Soe also emphasises the ephemeral quality of ice as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. But whereas the aesthetic intricacies of the works are of central importance to Loeum, for Aung Naing Soe the spectacle and the concept is everything.
In 2011, the artist was invited to join three other Burmese artists and four Cambodians in between: Myanmar and Cambodia, an exhibition at Meta House. His contribution was Life II, a performance in which he spelled the word “life” in metre-high letters made from bulk blocks of ice.
Of course, the word melted swiftly. There were no embellishments of colour in the ice, and no stress on fine details in the documentation. It was a very simple and direct conceptual performance.
Although using the same raw material and addressing similar philosophical concerns as Loeum, Aung Naing Soe takes a very different approach.
“The inner core of experience is unimpressed by any movement, emotions or activities,” he says.
The exhibition’s curator, Lydia Parusol, adds that “it’s moving fearlessly to its destination of decay and finally to death. It is this which has inspired Life II.”
Pounds of decadence
North American artists who have worked with ice add a touch of decadence.
Dale Chihuly, best known for his sculptural blown glass works, during the 1990s installed 20,000 Pounds of Ice at several museums in the US. It was as its title describes.
Frozen lozenges were illuminated by coloured tubes of neon lighting within.
The effect was gaudy and bright but also oddly enchanting: an aesthetic somewhere between the kitsch of an “ice carving” and the magic of a Loeum Lorn photograph.
Chihuly’s piece has been described as a critique of museums that try to preserve art for posterity, suggesting that the life of these cultural institutions is as impermanent as that of the creators whose works they enshrine.
In this sense, it shares something of the philosophy of Loeum Lorn and Aung Naing Soe.
But the extravagant scale, costly materials and slick look of Chihuly’s installation is worlds apart from the experiences or aspirations of most Southeast Asian artists.
Similarly, Judy Chicago’s Disappearing Environments installation earlier this year in Los Angeles utilised a staggering 25 tonnes of dry ice. Bricks of it formed towering pyramids at the entrance to this commercial fair.
The resulting fog was illuminated with elaborate lighting and flares.
Like Loeum’s photographs, Chicago’s installation had a kind of magic to it.
But it was the magic of special effects in a big-budget movie, not of simple materials being transformed by natural processes.
It’s unclear whether the title Disappearing Environments was intended by Chicago as a comment on deforestation and climate change.
Certainly, these concerns were a vital starting point for Phnom Penh photographer Lim Sokchanlina’s ongoing Rising Tonle Sap series.
Lim floats blocks of ice – like the metre-long bricks that both Loeum Lorn and Aung Naing Soe use – in the brown water of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
His high-gloss, large-format photographs capture the juxtaposition of the ice’s regular machine-made form as it quickly dissolves into the splendid chaos of nature.
“Melting ice is a simple metaphor for flux/morphing/changing nature due to climate change,” Lim explains.
He is interested not only in environmental degradation but in the “social change” that results from global warming, and he engages local fishermen in his work by offering them iced drinks.
Works from Rising Tonle Sap are now on show in Riverscapes, a travelling exhibition of 17 Southeast Asian artists.
Polished and perfectly composed, Lim’s photographs seduce the viewer into thinking about the often intimidating topic of climate change.
Yet in its use of vernacular materials and its straightforward presentation, Rising Tonle Sap shares with other Southeast Asian artists an approach to ice that situates art within the magic of the everyday.