Exhibition’s meaning transforms with new pandemic-informed world
By Bridgette M. Redman
The story an artist tells with her work is rarely finite. It changes and morphs with time in the eyes of those who see it.
Luciana Abait’s “Letter to the Future” exhibition at the LAX Airport Terminal 7 Gallery underwent one of these transformations, telling one story before the pandemic and another afterward, without her changing a single brush stroke or frame.
The exhibition is part of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles World Airport (LAWA) Art Program.
At noon on Wednesday, June 23, Abait and LAX art program director Sarah Cifarelli will conduct a walkthrough of and conversation about the artist’s vision about the future of the planet.
Abait, who has shown her work internationally and in Los Angeles, is a resident artist of 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Born in Buenos Aires, she is now based in LA, where she does photo-based work on climate change, environmental fragility and their effects on immigration.
The solo exhibition, “A Letter to the Future,” is on display through June 30. In 2018 and 2019, Abait developed the works for the show, a series featuring icebergs and designed to raise awareness about environmental issues, immigration and migration forced by climate change.
“When I originally started developing my iceberg series, I was thinking of two things,” Abait said. “I’ve always worked with environmental issues and creating works that depict nature, and I’ve always had some human element invading this natural environment.”
The exhibit opened in November 2019, but soon had to close because of the pandemic lockdown. Almost immediately, these scenes of loneliness and isolation took on new meaning.
“The desolation and isolation portrayed in these artworks becomes not only a burden shouldered by those who have immigrated, but now by all of humanity, since we all have become as isolated as icebergs, locked down in solitude inside our homes,” Abait said. “The virus has spread so fast through our global community. I have come to realize that COVID-19 has changed the world that we all knew, and the way we interact, forever. We will all be immigrants in our own shared new world.”
In Summer 2017, Abait read a news article about an iceberg in Antarctica that had broken off and was drifting aimlessly in the ocean.
“I found that very poetic, and something very appealing,” Abait said. “That was how my iceberg series started — that piece of iceberg floating endlessly on the ocean.”
She experimented with iceberg images and used them to create fantastical surreal worlds with skies of deep, unexpected colors and bits of human invasion on each iceberg. Abait, who immigrated from Argentina in the 1990s, said she pictured herself as that piece of ice.
“That sense of isolation that is this lonely piece of iceberg — I could not only relate it to myself, but also to anyone who has gone through an immigration process,” Abait said.
She started laying the pieces together, creating several images that she knew would be shown in the Terminal 7 gallery. She said the series was personal as much as it was environmental.
“I was able to put all these things together in this iceberg series in a poetic manner,” Abait said. “People see these beautiful, colorful and attractive artworks. At first glance, they might think it is a beautiful landscape, but as you start looking at it and observing it, there are all these layers of meanings and interpretations. You start to discover little clues to what is going on.”
LAX, she pointed out, went from being one of the most inhabited places on Earth before the pandemic to one of the most isolated places on Earth. Once travelers returned LAX, they told Abait that these icebergs represented everyone because we’ve all been isolated and locked down.
“My new realization is that life after COVID we are all immigrants in a new world,” Abait said. “All our worlds have changed, and we have to adapt to a new world. That is the new meaning of the exhibition. The loneliness applies to everyone.”
Each iceberg piece is a photo-based manipulated landscape that incorporates frosty and inhospitable terrains. She brings in supernatural colors and fragments of civilization — such as theater seats, a Ferris wheel, billboards — to produce a surreal dream landscape.
The digital photo collages are made using photographs Abait snapped in the California mountains and other trips. She then combined them with photographs she’s collected from places like Iceland and Alaska, as well as encyclopedias and magazines.
Abait’s background is in painting. Even though she works with photography, she said she “always uses the surface in a painterly manner. The works blur the boundary of photograph and painting and drawing. When you look at my works, it’s not a clearly defined photograph, it’s more like a painting and drawing because of the way I treat the surface.”
Abait prints her photographs on a cotton matte and then mounts them on wood panels. She works over the surface of the printed photo with soft pastels and pencils.
“It’s a new technique I started developing with this iceberg series,” Abait said. “The combination of an image printed on cotton paper and soft pastels applied over it creates a beautiful velvet surface, something soft and unique. The big black skies look very intense, beautiful and deep.”
The first two pieces she created were “Seats” and “Wheel.” Both have a black sky pierced by the iceberg. In the first, you see empty red theater seats. In the second, a lonely Ferris wheel.
“They are post-apocalyptic pieces in a way,” Abait said. “Those pieces look like what we’ve been living through — theater seats that are empty and Ferris wheels that are empty. It is something we would never have thought we’d see in our lives and somehow this is our new reality. It doesn’t look so surreal anymore. It’s real. When I was creating it, that was so sci-fi, something out of this world and it somehow became reality in a few months.”
“A Letter to the Future” is only the second exhibition to be shown in the new Terminal 7 gallery. She designed it with the venue in mind.
“It’s a beautiful space,” Abait said. “It’s very open and very airy. It has these beautiful skylights; the walls are big. It’s like a museum-style exhibition space.”
Because the space was so monumental, Abait wanted to create something that would create a visual impact. She started by creating pieces with very dark skies in deep blues and blacks. While she was really drawn to them, she realized that she couldn’t just continue creating the dark skies because people who were going to the gallery would then be getting on a plane.
“I have to create a balance between darkness and light,” Abait said. “All my pieces can’t be so post-apocalyptic. That is not the mood you want to have when you get on a plane.”
She said she envisioned herself as a passenger on a plane and created skies in pinks, yellows, oranges and bright blues.
“I think it creates a really beautiful balance and voyage from one mood to the other,” Abait said.
The exhibition title takes its name from another article Abait read. In 2014, the glacier Okjokull in Iceland melted, making it the first glacier lost to climate change. In 2019, scientists erected a plaque in Iceland to memorialize its demise.
The plaque is inscribed with text by Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason titled “A Letter to the Future.” It reads: “In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”