Jalopnik's Favorite Art Project: Freezing A 1978 Chevy Nova In Ice

Mary Carothers and Sue Wrbican are our kind of artists, having dedicated much of their efforts towards the issue of mobility, landscape and the influence of the automobile upon American culture. Their latest project explores, among other things, the transition from the late 1970's into the Malaise Era of the early 1980's as epitomized by the Chevy Nova, which was replaced by the less than stellar Chevy Citation. The monument to this change will be a 1978 Chevy Nova frozen into a block of ice at Michigan Tech University on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Can we avoid a world cluttered with boring, underpowered subcompacts but still avoid destroying the environment? Or as the artists put it: "The Frozen Car points to the classic struggle of culture versus nature. It is a monument to a tragedy meant to remind us of our present choices." Below our conversation with the artists.

We spoke with the artists via telephone as they warmed up from a day out in the bitter cold prepping the base for the placement of the Nova. When we first saw the project we feared that perhaps it would be merely a simple visual meant to criticize the car culture we hold so near and dear. We were therefore quite pleased to find out that both artists are car fans and are taking a thoughtful approach to examining the same conflicts we explore often on this site (the Nova belonged to one of the artists).

Mary and Sue, who met at the Rhode Island School of Design, have worked together for a while and therefore have a habit of finishing the other person's thoughts and sentences. Because of this we've formatted the interview as both were talking at the same time instead of separately.

Why freeze a Nova in a block of ice?

In the past we've done some projects involving blowing up cars and working with fire. What started as a comment has turned into an inquisitive investigation and we started thinking about it more seriously and started thinking about what metaphor the car could describe.

We love cars and for a long time our work has referenced mobility. We were also very fascinated with the metaphor and the car in American culture; that it's power and that it's freedom and now we're questioning those things. We tend to question our behavior at the same time we enjoy our behavior. That's just part of our inquisitive nature. We're critiquing the culture at the same time we're enjoying it.

(SUE) For me, this is kind of personal. When I was a baby I guess I had colic really bad and the only thing that would quiet me down is that my parents would have to drive me around at night. Cars have always been a pacifier in a way, a really elemental thing. I love to travel and mary does, too.

You're taking out the motor and a lot of the interior elements, is that an aesthetic or symbolic choice?

Technically, I think it will help us position the car because it will be much lighter... environmentally it's also a little more sound that the fluids aren't going to leak. On top of that it won't cloud the ice. Any dirt that gets in will affect the clarity. I think we also like the idea of the car being a shell as a metaphor.

(The artists also pointed out that getting someone to do all the mechanical work for free is tough and the people in the Michigan Tech engineering department were more than happy to barter the work for the engine.)

How did you end up choosing Michigan Tech?

Last year we worked with the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and they designed a refrigeration system and as much as we loved the work... we realized it would be very costly and we didn't want to have a fabricated solution to our problem. [Also] U of M did a study and realized that Detroit didn't get cold enough to get the ice that we needed. We wanted to do this by natural means and that meant we had to come further north.

[Mary] met an alum from Michigan Tech and he said it's really cold up there and you might want to contact the engineering department. They invited us to come up and with no skepticism said it's cold enough to do anything up there.

What's your ultimate dream for the project if you weren't hindered by supplies and funding?

What we'd really like to do is put it on a train while it's a frozen block and bring it to Detroit and watch it thaw. We think having a frozen Nova on a block of ice on the railroad car would look awesome. It would be suspended time in motion and it would be in the heart of the American auto industry. It would be ideal.


With the help of the Michigan Tech engineering department and students from Hancock High School, the car is set for freezing starting this Friday. The goal is to have the car frozen in time for the MTU Winter Carnival in early February. As the project continues we'll bring you updates from the frozen front lines. You can also follow the action on the Frozen Car Blog and Frozen Car Website.

Photos provided by the Artists