Arts exhibit review

Everest, everlasting?

Photography exhibition at the MIT Museum highlights climate change in the Himalayas

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect attribution for the author. The author is Kathryn Dere, not Roberto Perez-Franco.

Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya

David Breashears

MIT Museum

April 13, 2012 – March 2013

A visit to the art galleries on the second floor of the MIT Museum yields a pleasant surprise. “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya”, featuring the photography of filmmaker-mountaineer David Breashears, successfully integrates art and science to paint a fascinating portrait of climate change in the Greater Himalaya region.

Much in the spirit of National Geographic, “Rivers of Ice” puts the glaciers in the context of the people who populate the vast Himalayas region and the importance of the water supply from the glaciers; it also explains the meaning of the retreats and advances of glacier, giving us a timeline of climate change and human impact.

The photography portion of the exhibition highlights not only Breashears’ work but also that of his adventurous twentieth-century predecessors Vittorio Sella, George Mallory and Major E.O. Wheeler. Together, these images capture the majesty and mysteriousness of the mountains. Vittorio Sella’s 1909 photograph, The Duke of Altruzzi and guides climbing through the Chogolisa Icefall, shows icicles dripping from towering overhangs, like the teeth of icy dragons guarding caves full of treasure; an unknown photographer’s 1935 image, Near the Upper Kharta Glacier, Everest region, showcases a vast, mystical expanse of pristine snow and skies.

Other images emphasize the powerlessness of a single human amidst sublime nature. In a 2007 photograph, Main Rongbuk glacier ice pinnacles with climber, Jimmy Chin captures a figure scaling curiously-shaped ice forms, spread out on the ice like a lizard on the wall; in turn, the ice forms themselves are dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Most memorable is the 360° panorama view of the Kharta glacier in the Mount Everest region. To stand in the middle of such a setup is almost dizzying.

Amidst all these photographs and timelines of climate change are various mountaineering artifacts, reminders of the obstacles that mountaineers have tackled throughout history. There are climbing boots and rope, and for the photographer-mountaineers, cameras. Included in the display is a 15-pound Eastman 2-D view camera from 1921, similar to the one that Mallory used.

Near the end of the exhibition are printed the words of Humphry Davy: “Nothing is more fatal to the progress of the human mind than to presume that our views of science are ultimate, that our triumphs are complete, that there are no mysteries in nature and that there are no new worlds to conquer.” It is something to keep in mind as climate change — and often our determination to ignore it — continues to loom above us.