Frozen in Time

Two artists trek onto a frozen sea to capture the beauty of extreme climes for beauty’s sake

March 21, 2013
Artist Mary Coble stands on the frozen sea in Umea, in northern Sweden, in 2012. Her partner, Blithe Riley, recorded it for their project “Watermarks.”
Artist Mary Coble stands on the frozen sea in Umea, in northern Sweden, in 2012. Her partner, Blithe Riley, recorded it for their project “Watermarks.”

Artists Mary Coble and Blithe Riley’s most recent work, the 23-minute video “Watermarks,” brought them to the middle of a partially frozen sea.

“In the beginning we would hardly go out, we were so scared,” says Riley, 35. “The ice makes these insane sounds as it shifts under your feet. It goes ‘Woomf!’ ”

“I didn’t grow up around frozen things,” says the North Carolina-born Coble, 34. “So that innate fear [of falling through] was always there.”

Coble, who lived and taught in Washington, D.C., for 10 years before moving to Denmark in 2010, has long gone to extremes for art. She’s performed live pieces in which she ripped duct tape from her bare chest and got inkless tattoos of sexual and ethnic slurs all over her body to comment on hate crimes.

She and New York-based video artist Riley began an artistic partnership four years ago as Coble/Riley Projects. In February 2012, the pair traveled to Umea, in northern Sweden, on a monthlong fellowship. They

chose their subject after meeting local ice fishermen who shared their knowledge of the ice and the tools they used in their work.

In the finished piece, a black-clad figure (Coble, “but it could be anyone,” she says) bundled against the wind tentatively tracks onto the snow-covered ice, toting a shovel, an ice drill, a broom and a soup ladle. She shovels away a circle of snow to reveal solid ice, sweeps the surface smooth, drills into the water below, then ladles water across the circle so it can freeze and become reflective. Soon, several circles cover the ice.

The sun sets, its changing light casting otherworldly colors over the white landscapes and creating a frozen purple sea under an acid-green sky.

The finished piece — on view at Connersmith through March 30 — mulls the impact (and erasure) of human intervention on a natural landscape. Riley says that they didn’t know at first what the work would be: Both were too immersed in the technicalities of capturing the performance.

“The final work is [about] a dialogue between the site, the action and the recorded interpretation of that,” Riley says. “There was a big difference between how we were seeing the experience live on the ice and what we’d watch at the end of the day.”

Connersmith, 1358 Florida Ave. NE; free, through March 30; 202-588-8750.
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Shauna Miller · March 21, 2013