Elegizing Ice

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

New York-based artist and educator Jaanika Peerna grew up in Estonia during the Soviet era. Her drawings, installations, and performances all embody a sense of constant movement and change, either chaotic or orderly, that personifies the elements of water, ice, wind, air, and light. Peerna attributes many of the choices she has made about the materials she uses as well as her working methods to her childhood in her native land of ice and greyscale colors along the Baltic Sea. It was there where her body learned to embrace the movements specific to gliding on ice, where she observed the varied lines that skates made on the surface of ice, and where she mastered the use of the limited art materials available in the local Soviet-style school system – especially drawing with pencils on paper. To this day, she sees all of her work as drawing, “whether it is video or light installations, placing works in a room, drawing in space, leaving lines on paper, traces of movement and now performance.”

Ice skaters in Tallin, Estonia, Jaanika Peerna’s hometown. She spent four to five months each year outdoors on the ice.

Peerna moved to the United States 23 years ago. In 2009, she discovered the polyester film known as Mylar in her father-in-law’s architectural studio. It subsequently became the primary material she uses for her work. With its transparent, durable, and smooth qualities, Mylar reminded Peerna of ice. Around the same time that she adopted Mylar as her material of choice, she came across Stabilo water soluble, pigment pencils and admired the fat, dense lines they made. By chance, she moved one of the black pencils across a sheet of Mylar in her studio and saw how the line glided along the surface of the material without friction, like ice skates on ice. Using these black pencils on Mylar and with broad movements of her body, she began a number of large-scale drawings, which she ultimately called her Maelstrom series.

Movements in Grey, showing Jaanika Peerna at work in her studio, 2015

In 2009, Peerna exhibited her new work in Beacon, New York at the Go North Gallery and then in 2010, exhibited a second series of drawings on Mylar that she called Storms. Looking out of the window at the opening reception for the Storm drawings, she saw her friend Jane Thornquist, a dancer, moving her body outside in response to the drawings. Delighted at her friend’s reaction to her work, Peerna suggested that they develop a performance during which she would draw and Thornquist would then react to the drawing with movement. Based on the success of that effort and Peerna’s growing interest in performance, they collaborated a year later in New York City on a second piece that became a “call and response,” with each responding to what the other was doing. 

Maelstrom, pigment pencil on Mylar, 36” x 36”, 2010

Over the following years, Peerna continued to develop large-scale work with Mylar as well as performances at exhibition openings and/or closings. In 2014, she spent a pivotal year in Berlin where there were many more opportunities to practice public performance than had been available to her in the U.S. In 2018, wanting more direct interaction with her audiences, she created her iconic work, Glacier Elegy, an on-going project which incorporates audience members as critical components of the performances themselves. 

Glacier Elegy consists of Peerna herself, one or more large “scrolls” of Mylar or other sculptural elements formed from Mylar, water soluble pigment pencils (or not) and a block of ice (or sometimes more than one), and sometimes other performers. Each performance varies according to the site and ultimately evolves according to the choices that audience members make while they are participating. Although Peerna conducts the performances in silence, the sounds emanating from the movement of the Mylar itself become another element of the creative process.  

For example, in 2019, at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, Peerna performed Glacier Elegy surrounded by drawings of her work on the walls of the large gallery. (See video above.) Slowly entering the space, she moved towards two rolls of Mylar, which were suspended from the ceiling, and unhooked them so that they unrolled and furled down towards the floor. After she moved under and around, interacting with the Mylar herself, she motioned without using words to two members of the audience to do the same. 

Glacier Elegy, October 22, 2019 at Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut

As the performance proceeded, Peerna began to make lines on the Mylar with the pigment pencils and invited others to join her. Because the material was in motion, they too moved as they marked. Dozens of individuals filled the Mylar with lines and markings. She then introduced a block of ice, holding and embracing it as if it were the last, precious piece of ice remaining on Earth. Walking to the Mylar with the ice, she rubbed the melting ice over the lines, which began to bleed and run. Once again, with welcoming gestures, she invited others to help her “erase” what they had just made. 

Without words and with simple, accessible materials, Glacier Elegy effectively and viscerally addresses the climate crisis, and more specifically, the demise of glacial ice caused by human interference with the environment. On November 16, 2021, Glacier Elegies, an in-depth book on Peerna’s entire Glacier Elegyproject, will be published by Terra Nova Press. In addition to essays by Robert McFarlaneJanet Passehl, and Celina Jeffrey, the book includes an interview with Joana P. Nevers as well as extensive images of Peerna’s artworks and performances. 

Ice Memory, Peerna’s latest work, which combines both performance and exhibition together into one piece, is currently on view through August 29 at Gallery 222 in Hurleyville, New York. Measuring 12 ft. wide by 20 ft. long, the exhibition consists of a room-size drawing on Mylar, which hangs from the ceiling to the floor in a sloped curve “like a sledding hill.” At the opening for the exhibition, Peerna filled a plastic perforated tube, attached at the top of the work, with ice. As the ice melted onto the drawing over the course of the reception, visitors were mesmerized by the water dripping slowly down the mylar, in much the same way that one might be hypnotized watching waves repeatedly crashing onto the shore. 

Ice Memory, room size, sculpturally-installed drawing made with pigment pencil on Mylar, 12’ x 20’, 2021
Ice Memory, room size, sculpturally installed drawing made with pigment pencil on Mylar, 12’ x 20’, 2021 after one of eight ice melts over a two-month time period

Ice Memory will continue to evolve over the course of the exhibition during weekly “Melting Events” hosted by the gallery. With additional ice added to the perforated tube, many of the lines in the drawing will bleed into one another and eventually be erased. As the gallery notes, the process is “not unlike the changes we witness in our natural landscapes.” 

With all of her exhibitions and performances to date, Peerna has deferred from using explanatory text of any kind. For Ice Memory, however, she has provided a quotation from Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane as part of the exhibition because she finds his description of ice to be particularly moving and especially relevant to her work. 

Ice is a recording medium and a storage medium. It collects and keeps data for millennia. Unlike our hard disks and terabyte blocks, which are quickly updated or become outdated, ice has been consistent in its technology over millions of years. Once you know how to read its archive, it is legible almost as far back – as far down – as the ice goes. Trapped air bubbles preserve details of atmospheric composition. The isotopic content of water molecules in the snow records temperature. Impurities in the snow – sulphur acid, hydrogen peroxide – indicate past volcanic eruptions, pollution levels, biomass burning, or the extent of sea ice and its proximity. Hydrogen peroxide levels show how much sunlight fell upon the snow. To imagine ice as a “medium” in this sense might also be to imagine it as a “medium” in the supernatural sense: a presence permitting communication with the dead and the buried, across gulfs of deep time, through which one might hear distant messages from the Pleistocene.

Jaanika Peerna interprets our world as it exists today through line and motion. She invites us to join her in engaging with the elements of water, ice, wind, air, and light in all of their conditions. Using simple body movements and drawn gestures, she compels us to consider the transformations that have occurred in the natural environment and to mourn their passage. 

(Top image: Glacier Elegy Brooklyn, performance in public space with three performers and audience members, one block of ice, two sculptural elements, Brooklyn waterfront, New York City, October 20, 2020. All images courtesy of the artist.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a new story about the creation of the world, a re-imagining of the natural world without humanity’s harmful impact upon it.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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