2010, Seattle, USA         

Frost King

Charred timber
10 x 20 x 0.3 m

Installation Open Satellite

Inside a gleaming high-rise apartment building stands a charred and vacant ruin. Built of wood by the English artists Heather and Ivan Morison, this work is a slatted wall scaled to a gallery that barely contains it. The wall has a slight bend in the middle and leans forward into the space, supporting its weight in a position that should seem precarious, but does not, and suggests instability though firmly rooted to the ground. Or maybe it’s not falling. It’s waiting for a strong enough wind to catch it up, carry it off into the sky. Heather quotes from the science fiction writer Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe, and Everything on this point: “There is an art, […] or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
[...]The Morisons came to Bellevue thinking of Detroit. Bellevue – a car-centered, fast-growing edge city of glassy high-rise towers on large blocks connected by broad avenues; a city structured around retail, recreation, and technology, its central civic institution a shopping mall – is a dream of a future of pleasure and consumption. Detroit, Motor City, is a shrinking city of the 20th century, its spectacular high-rise ruins reminders of its mid-century industrial might and its stunning collapse. Detroit was for years notorious for “Devil’s Night,” the night before Halloween, a hellish holiday celebrated by torching vacant buildings across the city. An imaginative leap brought these two cities together for the artists. American cities grow from nothing, on the least likely of soils, in the middle of deserts or on top of geological faults, and they decline as quickly as they rise. Bellevue has its gleaming new apartment buildings, but many of them are empty. The lurching boom-and-bust cycle of real estate development spurs speculative construction that, no matter how quickly built, can never quite keep pace with the business cycle that always ends this way, until the next upturn.
Thinking of the ruins of Detroit, Ivan Morison considered visiting them, but chose instead to travel south, driving thirteen hours to reach Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson's massive work of land art on the Great Salt Lake. Formed from rocks bulldozed into the lake in 1970, Spiral Jetty is a massive ruin built in a sublime landscape that has been heavily industrialized. The jetty has been regularly submerged in the lake's waters, subject to the water needs of various industries and to the Southwest's perpetual cycles of drought. As the jetty re-emerges from the lake, it collects on its rock surfaces beautiful crystals formed of the lake's rich mineral deposits. These crystals suggest creation amid destruction, a cyclical process rather than the finality of ruin. Ivan collected a few of these and returned to Bellevue to begin work.
[...]A grid of 4x6 timbers was put together on the floor of the gallery to make the framework of
Frost King, and then trucked out, along with the milled fir planks, to Tieton in eastern Washington. There, the Morisons and their crew used propane torches to scorch the wood, a controlled burn which turned their rough-milled, raw surfaces into glossy, charred obsidian crackled in patterns like alligator skin. This technique derives from traditional Japanese architecture: the burned wood is sealed, protected from decay and infestation, and it absorbs the sun's heat when put on south-facing walls. It's an aggressive act that preserves. This paradox suggests a connection between Frost King and the ruins of the Morisons' native England, artifacts of the innumerable disasters given to a nation over the course of a long history. These ruins are protected as heritage sites, preserved in a condition of destruction. The English academic Steven Connor has said "Ruins in fact hold death at bay. Having undergone a pseudo-decay, the process of decay seems to have been arrested in them."
As architecture, the Morisons'
Frost King is more fragment than building. Structurally it is a wall, a timber frame supporting infilled walls of boards, angled like shutters that admit or deny views through the sculpture as a viewer moves around the form. It is a sculpture because it stands, self-supporting, in the space, because it engages the space of the viewer, because it changes as the viewer's position changes.[...]

Eric Fredericksen, Open Satellite guest curator, curatorial statement to Frost King
[...]"We like to work with what's there," Heather Morison says. "And that's not about recycling and reusing, but it's about how people lived maybe a little while ago—the idea that if you've got a redwood and a flatbed truck, you've got a house. That you have skills for survival. That it's not about what you have, it's about what you know. And we're losing that massively. We have to know how to make our own works, and we have to know how to lead a team."
A crew of volunteers from various back­grounds built
Frost King alongside the Morisons (including, centrally, two architects, ensuring the piece would be structurally sound, considering it would stand for a number of months on a base only six inches wide along its 60-foot length). The volunteers found themselves covered in soot from handling the burned wood. Its cracked, splitting surface gives the impression that Frost King could fall into ashes at any moment. Something has happened, something may still happen: The sculpture is as much verb (past or future tense: burning, flying, falling) as noun (screen, blind, quilt, window, book).
[...]The Morisons use land and the management of natural resources as a medium, and a canvas.
Frost King—unlike Los Angeles artist Olga Koumoundouros's A Roof Upended, which used the roofing of a nearby home slated for demolition in a 2007 installation in the same Bellevue gallery—is not an outright critique, but something more flexible and diffuse, like the network of people who built Frost King. It's also a work of the imagination, like a prop lifted from a story. What does it mean to be concerned about the future of trees when we don't know how to chop one down and build a shelter ourselves, anyway? It's become an odd existence in the wealthy, worried West in 2010: Something has burned, and something will take flight. Meanwhile, this is art made of what's here.

Jen Graves, The Meaning of Trees - A Giant Wooden Kite That Can't Fly, The Strange, 1 June 2010.


[...] Having experienced both the commercial and non-commercial aspects of new art spaces in Seattle, I was still unprepared for the high point of the trip, which was the installation by Heather and Ivan Morison at the space Open Satellite, in Bellevue. Founded in 2007 by Su Development, Open Satellite is an unusual marriage between the art residency/exhibition paradigm pioneered in the 1990s by Artpace in San Antonio, and responds to the particular challenges faced operating within a car-centered community (more people seem to work in Bellevue than live there). The exhibitions change four times a year, with regional curators selecting national and international artists who are underexposed in the Northwest US, and an emphasis on large-scale site-specific installations that can be easily seen from the street, including by commuters in their cars.
I can't speak for the commuters' experiences, but upon entering the space during the Morison project (through July 17), it was hard not to be impressed by the sheer physical presence of the work on display,
Frost King, which is essentially a massive freestanding kite form constructed from scorched timber and planks. The title and form derive from Benjamin Franklin's experiments with kites and electricity, specifically, his effort to create a single kite large enough to carry a human on its tail. Scorching is a way of preserving wood from decay, and in Frost King it has the added effect of transforming the entire structure into a meta-ruin - a memento of industrialized society that magically recaptures a sense of awe for the primitive by filtering the room's ample sunlight into intricate patterns of shade and glare, thereby transporting visitors to a powerful sensory evocation of the original alpine forest out of which this pinnacle of high-tech achievement was first carved.

Dan Cameron, Three Spaces In Seattle, ART iT Magazine, 5 July 2010

Photographers’ credits       

All images_ Ivan Morison

Love Me or Leave Me Alone        


Love Me or Leave Me Alone, The Very Public Art of Heather Peak and Ivan Morison presents a journey through the past decade and a half of the artists’ practice, with an emphasis on their pavilions, escape vehicles, and public artworks.  The book can be ordered from the publishers Art/Books
Press contact        

If you can’t find the information you are looking for you can contact the studio of Heather Peak and Ivan Morison here: studio@peakmorison.org