Baked Alaska: Hope in the Time of Disaster

This essay is adapted from an assignment in the Colby College course Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities Christopher Walker. 

The exhibition Occupy Colby featured many thought-provoking works, but the one that struck me the most was Justin Brice Guariglia’s large and graphic Baked Alaska (2018). The work is composed of text hand chiseled into polystyrene (Styrofoam) panels that have been printed with a picture of the Alaskan ice sheets. The words in the middle read “Baked Alaska.” The texture of the letters is coarser than the surface of the panels, giving a sense of the force and aggression required to gouge them out. The work is a metaphor for how humans have carved into the ice sheets and snow of Alaska—the background image is literally interrupted by the cut letters. More broadly, it is a commentary on human interaction with the nonhuman world as it showcases how humans disrupt the environment.

Installation shot of Baked Alaska in Occupy Colby. Photo courtesy of Luc Demers.

The artist’s choice of material, Styrofoam, has a specific resonance. By leaving the remnants of the Styrofoam scrapings on the floor, Guariglia brings to mind all the snow that has melted in Alaska due to such human-made catastrophes as global warming and climate change. He also implies that even if the snow has melted, it is still present in the form of water contributing to the rise of sea level due to climate change. Additionally, overwhelming amounts of Styrofoam debris washed up along the Alaskan shoreline after the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and most of it remains embedded in the ground. This poses a threat to wildlife as Styrofoam can’t be recycled and takes up to five hundred years to be broken down in a landfill. The artist’s use of this material is a reminder of human impact on the climate and the detrimental effects of the climate crisis on everyone.

The words “Baked Alaska,” rendered in large, assertive block letters, highlight the ramifications of these environmental issues. (Baked Alaska is a type of dessert featuring cake, ice cream, and a covering of baked meringue.) With this play on words, Guariglia is trying to criticize human society for causing global warming, which has led to the melting—or “baking”—of the snowcaps around the world. After examining a picture of the dessert online, I realized that the outside looks completely different from the inside: a metaphor for how the appearance of Alaska, with all of its ice and snow, can be deceiving, as the snow is still melting. By comparing Alaska to a dessert, the artist uses humor to bring the audience in for further discussion.

Installation shot of Baked Alaska in Occupy Colby. Photo courtesy of Luc Demers.

This work also made me think about the concept of hope. The past tense in “Baked” seems to imply that Alaska’s state is hopeless. But this defeatist perspective feels wrong, and that line of thinking can make it easy to justify giving up in the fight against climate change—so I tried to look at this piece from another perspective. Teresa Shewry’s book Hope at Sea: Possible Ecologies in Oceanic Literature inspired me to consider the matter differently as she explores the many interpretations of hope, especially in the time of drastic environmental change. Perhaps the past tense is being used here to evoke fear—a wake-up call for political mobilization, emphasizing that if no action is taken, then everything will be baked. Shewry believes that hope requires the recognition of the current state as well as the past in order to consider the myriad possible outcomes of the future—a concept that she refers to as the “temporality of hope.” Thus, Baked Alaska references the past in order to show us what the future might look like if no action is taken. And though that future is bleak, confronting this grim scene is necessary for political action.