At SFMOMA: Julian Charrière’s haunting and gorgeous ‘Erratic’ amplifies the loss of climate change

The ocean at night has always freaked me out a little. From the shore, the expanse of water seems endless. And on the few times when I’ve stood on the stern of a ship, staring out into the darkness, I could feel the smallness of this floating bit of light in the vast expanse of night.

I think that’s one reason I am so moved — and scared — by Julian Charrière’s “Erratic,” a mesmerizing installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It deeply affected me both times I’ve seen it.

Shawn Ghassemitari explains the concept in HypeArt:

On view at SFMOMA, Charrière transformed the museum’s seventh floor level into a frozen tundra filled with brooding sculptures and wall-to-wall film installations. Entitled “Erratic,” the artist flips the narrative of the often picturesque polar regions, whose towering white glaciers and crystal blue seas, are replaced by a haunted glacial landscape.

In a 104-minute immersive film called “Towards No Earthly Pole” (2019), Charrière used drone technology to film night footage along various locations in the French Alps, Greenland Arctic and Antarctic. Accompanied by an ambient soundtrack that oscillates between crackling noises and silence, the film distorts visitors’ perception of space and hints at humankind’s possible future amidst the changes in climate.

The artist’s vision absorbed me. A key is his use of a strong, probing searchlight that illuminates the ice floes from various angles — some close-up, others in near-panoramic detail — as they heave and melt. The ice seems mysterious and somehow recalcitrant, as if we’re somehow disturbing its privacy.


Yet there’s a gentle touch here, too. Charrière ingeniously finds a way to modulate the illumination so that instead of a brutish, prison-camp style searchlight, it’s more like a feather of discovery.

At one point the roar of the water grows so loud that I feel confined and claustrophobic in the large, darkened room. That noise is the ice melting. When I’ve read about climate change and the loss of glaciers, I’ve never thought before about the sound that frozen water makes when it starts turning to liquid. Think of ice cubes crackling and settling in a glass, say, and then amplify them a hundredfold. It’s as if the calving, churning glaciers in the exhibition are shouting. The noise roars periodically, like a car zooming by you on an otherwise empty highway. You feel the vibrations.

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There is definitely a sense of loss in the exhibition, both aurally and visually. With its rough cracks and soiled surfaces, the ice seems gnarled, old and wrinkled. This is about losing something that’s been around a while.

I rarely get the chance to visit an out-of-town museum show twice, but in this case, I made an effort to revisit “Erratic.” It continues to stick with me. I highly recommend it.

Julian Charrière’s “Erratic” continues at SFMOMA through May 14. Here’s a video (courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery via SFMOMA) that explains more about the immersive film:

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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