When you’re caught in an avalanche, everything turns upside down. In a split second, a mountain starts behaving like an ocean. Solid becomes liquid. Powder becomes cement. The world goes white, then totally black. Coursing down a slope at 100 miles an hour, you become engulfed by an unbearable weight that fills your throat, ears and nostrils with snow, compresses your body and steals the air out of your lungs.
It’s a terrifying experience that not many have survived – and certainly not one anyone would go through voluntarily. But Vancouver-based lighting designer Matthew McCormick, whose immersive installation Avalanche opens at the V&A Museum today as part of the 2019 London Design Festival, is hoping people will do just that.
On the landing of the V&A’s British Gallery, visitors will be beckoned into a low-lit, box-like structure clad in black mirrors with shards of white light piercing through. They will navigate an uncertain pathway through the expansive, disorienting installation, feeling increasingly claustrophobic as they seek a route toward the exit – which turns out to be the same way they came in. An atmospheric soundscape of deep, rumbling bass will help set the chilling mood.
It may sound like McCormick is something of a sadist. In fact, his intentions are far nobler: He wants people to connect, on an individual level, with the devastating effects of climate change. “Whether people love it or hate it, I’m hoping it will elicit an emotional response. It’s about asking people to stop and pay attention, because this is happening all around us,” McCormick says.
The designer is all too familiar with the horrors of avalanches. An avid outdoorsman and winter sports enthusiast, he’s been caught in a couple himself – and last year lost a close friend to one. “My friend Brian lived in Interior B.C. and was close to being a pro snowmobiler. He was out one day with two friends in an area that never once had a recorded snow incident. Something broke free, and an avalanche came by and wiped him out,” McCormick says. “In part, this project is a way of honouring him.”
After the incident, McCormick took courses in avalanche safety and backcountry survival. “It educated me on the effects of climate change on the snowpack and what truly causes an avalanche,” he says. In 90 per cent of cases, it’s people – mostly snowmobilers and hikers – who trigger the torrential snow slides by adding their weight to a weak layer of snow concealed beneath a tightly packed top layer. Fluctuating temperatures make these layers more unstable. Between 2009 and 2018 in Canada, 123 people died in avalanches – 102 in British Columbia alone. Research shows that climate change is making avalanches more common, dangerous and difficult to forecast.
On a personal level, Avalanche is about confronting a near-death experience. On a universal level, it’s about our planet doing the same thing. With a desire to minimize his own carbon footprint, the perfectionist designer was highly selective about his choice of materials, deciding on Barrisol, a versatile, 100-per-cent recyclable material that can be stretched and moulded with impeccable precision.
Across this year’s London Design Festival, 400 events will explore design’s role in creating solutions for a more sustainable future. “This is a subject that has touched me deeply, and one that I can speak to honestly and authentically,” McCormick says. His studio, founded in 2013, is known for a design ethos that he describes as “striking, graphic and edited,” and he has found success creating custom commissions that are elegant, minimalist and bold. “We have been taking a more honest look at our DNA recently, about how I design from personal experience,” he says. “I think that Avalanche really speaks to that. We’re moving away from purely decorative light pieces and into more culturally relevant pursuits.”
With this artistic interpretation of how humans are causing disasters to occur on both a natural and personal scale, McCormick is hoping to spur visitors into taking responsibility – and action. “I hope Avalanche will make people pause and think about their own impact on the environment,” he says. “A critical mass is required to instigate societal change, but this collective awareness has to start with the individual.”
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