Kennedy Center’s ‘Coal and Ice’ exhibit shows photos of glaciers won’t help us understand climate change

The climate crisis suffers from a problem of scale. It is intertwined with the smallest and most basic aspects of everyday life: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the feel of the sun on an uncomfortably hot day. It’s a crisis we can taste, touch and smell – a crisis that drains from the pores, dries out the mouth, fills the lungs.

Yet very often the images that come to mind when we think of climate change are too big to envelop us: glaciers somewhere melting; coal-fired power plants scattered around the world, pumping emissions into the sky; a rising ocean; a decimated forest.

Helplessness is a reasonable answer, but not particularly helpful.

So you can understand why “Coal and Ice” – an exhibition of hundreds of large-scale documentary photographs, mostly of glaciers and coal miners, which were projected onto 50 screens in a 30,000 square foot tent at Kennedy Center’s Reach Plaza – could leave you both overwhelmed and disappointed. It’s easy to feel alienated by this existential threat. This show does not help.

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Presented in partnership with the Asia Society, “Coal and Ice” was first presented in Beijing in 2011, when we were still talking about the ozone layer and calling it “global warming” – this which might explain the predictable approach.

Divided into sections titled ‘Coal Miners’, ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Human Consequences’, the installation aims to visualize the connection between coal and ice. It’s a seductive artistic idea: the grime of the mines contrasting with the white of the Arctic. But the average viewer is unlikely to feel immediately invested in either – especially without the help of wall text, which the show oddly avoids. (Tip: Check out the virtual guide at coalandice.org before you go, so you know what you’re looking at.)

It’s not that “Coal and Ice” doesn’t have powerful visuals. It features the work of dozens of photographers, including well-known names such as Robert Capa, David Seymour and Gordon Parks. As you enter the show, you almost feel lifted by David’s stunning glacier and mountain shots Breashears and Jimmy Chin. In a photograph of a fellow coal worker by miner and photographer Song Chao, the subject’s humanity radiates from behind the grime covering his face, like the sun melting dirty snow. Cameron Davidson’s aerial shots give the Earth’s surface the rhythmic touch of an abstract painter. And the “Human Consequences” section features memorable apocalyptic horrors both public – images of people rowing through flooded streets – and domestic – Darcy Padilla’s image of washing machines towering over a decimated landscape.

But from the start of the show, there’s a disconnect, a protective layer between you and the kind of soulful, substantial emotion that sticks to your skin.

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While the show includes found disaster footage that is instinctively terrifying, it has a sensationalist quality that keeps it from feeling real. It’s hard to connect with the experience of a nameless person being swept away by rapids in the subway station, after all.

Photos of glaciers are almost too good, like an escape wallpaper or an advertisement for an arctic cruise.

The black and white photographs of miners, which range from the early 1900s to the present day and capture workers from around the world, all seem to belong to the same distant era. We should feel the climate crisis blowing down our necks. And yet, “Coal and Ice” creates the dangerous illusion that it’s somehow in the past.

Several photographs are victims of the dizzying conception of the spectacle. The projectors leaf through the images like a nervous 5th grader giving a slide presentation. You don’t get the chance to really connect with just one image: the eyes of a Ukrainian miner from the recently bombed Luhansk region in one; a fiery, orange California sky in another.

The show caters to wavering attention spans. And that might be the main problem here. Meaningful action on a slow-moving disaster like climate change requires patience and focus: while the climate crisis is always present, it doesn’t always flash before your eyes.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Reach Plaza, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.

Appointment: Open Wednesday to Sunday until April 22.

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