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Ephemeral sculptures raise long-term issue — climate change

MIDDLEBURY — Four hundred sculptures disappeared outside the Davis Family Library at Middlebury College on Tuesday and no one did anything to stop it. Some witnesses expressed mixed feelings about it. Many took photographs. But by evening there was nothing left to see.
That was the point.
These sculptures — the work of Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo — were made of ice.
The installation was “beautiful but hard to see,” said Fabiola Stein, a Portuguese teaching assistant at the college who was among scores of people who came out to see the ice sculpture.
It was 45 degrees outside — normal for this time of year in Middlebury — when more than a hundred volunteers began installing the 8-inch sculptures in neat rows on the library’s limestone steps. Molded into the shape of seated female and male people, the figures immediately began to thaw.
Azevedo calls the work “Minimum Monument” and she has installed it in public spaces all over the world — more than 20 installations in Latin American, Asia and Europe. The impermanence of her material, she hopes, will inspire in her viewers deeper reflections on a wide range of issues, including monuments, public spaces and, of course, climate change.
Burlington hosted the American premier of Azevedo’s work last weekend as part of the Feverish World Symposium. More than a thousand ice figures made by dozens of volunteers over several days graced, then melted down, the steps of Burlington City Hall.
For UVM Lecturer and Faculty Fellow Maria Alessandra Woolson, who invited Azevedo to the United States, it felt important that Vermont be the artist’s first experience of America. Burlington is the first U.S. city to draw all of its energy from renewable sources, Woolson pointed out, and Middlebury was the first college to establish a major in environmental studies.
A senior in that program, Morgan Forest Perlman, felt that Tuesday’s installation sent a powerful message.
“It was kind of thrilling to see people you knew — professors, students, administrators, townspeople — come together to change the ordinary steps of Davis Library into a piece of art. It made me think: just maybe that’s the kind of community cooperation we need more of in a world facing climate change, environmental degradation and social injustice. I think that’s what good public art should do.”
Many hands are required for such installations, which is also part of the point, Azevedo said.
Each sculpture takes 24 hours to freeze, after which it’s popped from its mold, trimmed by hand with carving tools and placed in a freezer for safekeeping.
“It was very grounding and meditative work,” said Claudio Madeiros, an associate professor of theater who helped create the figures and organize the installation.
In Brazil, Cuba, Italy and other far less arctic places, the figures have disappeared in as little as 20 minutes. In Middlebury it took nearly four hours.
Still they melted.
Even as shivering observers braced themselves against a cold, damp wind, puddles formed and fog-colored ice grew transparent. The first figure to fall onto the step below sounded like a dropped plastic toy, solid and invincible; later topplings would recall nothing so much as dropped sno-cones.
In an essay earlier this summer, Woolson wrote that “for the viewer, the faceless bodies and ephemeral ice figures soon become a confrontation of our modern indifference and the fragility of our existence. At the same time they are also an honest representation of the beauty of the ordinary.”
An hour after the figures were installed on Tuesday only a handful of observers remained. Orange maple leaves floated in the growing puddles and crows bickered overhead. Post-class chatter gave way to awed hushes and students emerged from the library and encountered the work in progress.
In the dusk, ice people began to lose their legs and sometimes their heads. Some had melted into each other. Others, as they softened, seemed to lean forward, grieving.
“Words are not enough,” Azevedo later told a gathering in nearby Warner Hall.
When the artist first began working with ice figures she would install them singly or in pairs, she said. Soon, however, it became important to create entire communities, to “replace the hero’s face” with anonymous, common people.
After all, she added, “the same conditions apply to everyone. The urgency is the same.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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