The Melting Ice Sheet, The Artist, And The Space Agency

Artist Justin Guariglia’s enormous artwork comes from embedding with NASA as it collects climate change data and is meant to last centuries, to serve as an artifact itself of how humanity is reshaping the planet.

The art on the wall shows the castoffs of a dying glacier, represented in a work that is designed to outlive you–and your grandkids. It tells a story of what could be humanity’s downfall. It is stark and abstract–the chunks of white appear to rain down carelessly into an abyss–but it also vibrates with the terrible knowledge that we live on a planet that gets warmer each month.

APR 25, 2015 20:17:24 GMT, 2015-2016.

Working with NASA, the artist, Justin Guariglia, is grappling with a problem that no one who cares about the future of the planet had fully managed to wrap his or her mind around: Climate change is an existential crisis, it is long term, but it is also made up of lots of dry data that is hard to observe through intuition. How can you make the public care on a visceral level? How can you make it clear that Greenland’s melting glaciers are a worldwide emergency?

A former photojournalist and documentarian, Guariglia lived in Asia for 20 years producing cover photos, news spreads, and exhibitions for major outlets and institutions. While there, he also had a front-row seat to the continent’s economic explosion and the vast waste and pollution that came with it. Frustrated with the limits of photojournalism in a world where millions of images are produced and shared each day, and seeking a greater moral purpose after the birth of his first child, Guariglia turned to his fine art as his medium and our species’ future as his subject.

APR 25, 2015 20:17:24 GMT, 2015-2016. Surface Detail.

At the Lincoln Center Global Exchange held in September, NASA announced that Guariglia will be the first artist “embedded” in one of the agency’s missions.

Over five years, Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG, of course), run out of the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, is set to investigate the poorly understood role of the oceans in melting Greenland’s ice sheets from below. With research airplanes and ships, hundreds of temperature and salinity probes, and millions of mapping data, scientists will tease out a better understanding of the fate of Greenland’s ice. The rates of global sea level rise–and therefore the fortune’s of human coastal societies–are closely tied to this fate.

“A lot of the important scientific ideas tend to do with the complicated shape of the sea floor and of the glaciers and how the water meets the ice,” says NASA project scientist Joshua Willis. “I’m hoping Justin will be able to take a look at our data and create something that inspires people and informs people and really stimulates an emotion.”

NASA has worked with artists before. Its legendary art program once commissioned artists like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol to convey the drama of its missions. It still does this work on a smaller scale, last year releasing a set of beautiful posters celebrating the future of space tourism. But there has also been political pushback: After giving performance artist Laurie Anderson a $20,000 stipend as the agency’s first and only artist-in-residence from 2003-2005, Congress specifically banned this kind of “wasteful spending” again. (“Spending money by NASA on a performance artist and a artist-in-residence program does nothing to make sure that the shuttle program gets back into space,” said Republican Rep. Chris Chocola, at the time.) So in this case, while Guariglia is given full access to the mission, he must raise private funding for his work. (After publication, the agency, which for this reason is careful about describing Guariglia’s work, noted that the written scope of the project says that he is to be given the same level of access to the project’s field work and data that are available to other artists, photographers, and media organizations–though no one else has ever had this level of access previously.)

Nov 26, 2014 05:55:11 GMT, 2014-2015.

OMG, however, won’t be the first time Guariglia is collaborating with NASA. After hearing about Operation IceBridge, an annual aerial survey of the polar ice caps, he called to see if he could get on one of the ongoing flights. They said not for two years, so digging into his experience of dropping everything for breaking news stories, he asked: ‘What if I could get to Greenland tomorrow?’” There happened to be some room; he rushed to the airport and was soon up in the skies.

His photographs from his time flying over the Arctic, both with NASA and on his flights from New York to Asia, were transformed into art pieces at his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The entire space is an ode to the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch defined by the lasting human footprint on the Earth, from mass extinctions to nuclear radiation to plastic and CO2 pollution. (Scientists are on the verge of a monumental decision to make the Anthropocene “official,” ending the Holocene of the last 11,700 years.) Strewn about are “artifacts” of the Anthropocene era, like the whole skin of a Florida crocodile, killed for its hide, and plastic pink flamingos.

Guariglia wants his work to also become an Anthropocene artifact itself. He has invented and even gone to the trouble to trademark his process, which he calls “Plasticene printing.” Using an enormous, configurable UV printer that sits in his studio–one of a handful of this size and advanced technology in the world, he says–he can layer acrylic ink onto almost any material, and, as it is exposed to UV radiation, it instantly hardens and becomes plastic. The ink is laid down so finely that he can pass over each pixel perhaps 500 times, creating a 3D topography on the image he is depicting. The plastic ink and his canvases, made from materials like aerospace-grade aluminum, are meant to be “fossils” of our age, lasting centuries or longer–unlike typical photography, which is delicate and degrades quickly.

Nov 26, 2014 05:55:11 GMT, 2014-2015. Raw Linen Edge View.

The final product is as realistic as a photo, but through its use of materials, process, and scale, it resonates differently. His enormous canvases, some of the largest “single printed” fine art in the world, he says, each looks down at a landscape, whether an ice sheet or a gold mine or terraced rice fields, from a top-down view. The viewer loses any sense of scale.

“That’s kind of the point of all the work. Is that you’re thrown into this whole other world and you don’t quite know what you’re looking at,” he says.

At this point, Guariglia has put his life into his work. When he left his career in photojournalism to pursue art, he moved back to Brooklyn, leaving his two children with their mother in Taiwan. He had to sell his home in order to buy his treasured printer from Switzerland, and withered his savings over two years to pay for expensive supplies, rent his cavernous studio, and hire assistants. He even tattooed a chart of the Earth’s temperature rise onto his left arm.


Much of his money has gone dry by now. He’s let go of his help, and, no longer able to afford rent on his apartment, he is soon planning to move into his studio, where he spends many 18-hour days anyway. Now he’s applying for grants, with the help of a museum that will show his work next year, seeking a lifeline to prevent him sinking deeper into debt. (“I’m not a business person, and I’ve backed myself into a bit of a corner,” he admits.)

Despite his financial woes, Guariglia would like to see more people in the arts engage with what he considers the most important issue of our time. On the OMG mission, Guariglia hopes to develop new ways to visualize data and imagery and bring in other artists to collaborate. Willis, of NASA, says this could be helpful to the scientists themselves, allowing them to better understand the Greenland coastline’s complex shape–which is carved with canyons, fjords, and glaciers–and how the ice and water interact.

Overall, NASA is feeling more urgency to communicate its climate change work, which is often undercover compared to its space research. Piers Sellers, director of NASA’s earth sciences division, tells Co.Exist: “We would like to reach every single person. It’s about reaching our minds–that’s a little more our job–and hearts. Artists reach people’s hearts at an emotional level through their stories, visualizations, and their images.”

On the phone from a hotel room in Greenland, grounded from flying because of storms, Willis notes the urgent time line of this work. “It’s very important to understand that we are reshaping our planet’s climate, and we are doing it in a really rapid and really big way. We have to start to think about the consequences of that and start to deal with those consequences.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire