What language can we find
In 1970 and again in 1974, Maurice Conly, an official Royal New Zealand Air Force artist, travelled to Antarctica. Since the formation of Antarctica New Zealand less that a decade ago, dozens of artists have embarked on similar creative journeys. The polar continent captivates the minds of many, and with the assistance of Antarctica New Zealand artists are encouraged to share their unique response to this mysterious and spectacular landscape.
In 1996 Antarctica New Zealand in partnership with Creative New Zealand developed both the Artists to Antarctica Programme and the Invitational Artists Programme. Knowing artists could provide insightful interpretations of Antarctica, the scheme was positioned as an exciting and innovative venture.
The benefits are two fold: artists are awarded a unique opportunity to work in a landscape that presents technical, creative and personal challenges. Through their experience public awareness is raised and valuable insights are shared. As Antarctica New Zealand's Chief Executive Lou Sanson has declared, 'this scheme gives New Zealand artists a rare opportunity to experience the greatest wilderness on earth. The Arts Fellows interpret that inspiration and share their unique experience for the benefit of all New Zealanders'.2 Elizabeth Kerr, Creative New Zealand's Chief Executive agrees: 'It [Artists to Antarctica Programme/Invitational Artists Programme] is an admirable example of how arts, science and the environment can come together.'3
Writers, poets, sculptors, ceramicists, printmakers, fashion and textile designers, jewellers, furniture makers, painters, intermedia and sound artists, photographers, composers and choreographers, have all travelled to Antarctica.4 For many artists, the snow-white landscape, dry valleys and icy blue crags leave a lasting impression.
In the years prior to her departure, Dee Copland had worked consistently on projects relating to the physical and psychological characteristics of elemental landscapes. Early works were created in response to the environment, shaped by metaphors of destruction and survival. Antarctica presented Copland new with challenges and an intense consideration of her theme.
During a visit to Cape Royds, Copland completed preparatory drawings for a poignant and unforgettable collection of lightboxes, mixed media and paper works exhibited together at the Christchurch Art Gallery in 2004. Copland considered the realities of exploration, the turbulent relationship between man and nature, and the desire to negotiate a balance between two competing forces.
On arrival in Antarctica, Copland assumed the role of explorer, her greatest discovery: Ernest Shackleton's hut. In freezing conditions she completed several sketches and drawings of this heritage site. With precision and reflection Copland transformed site drawings into a large woodcut of the interior that shared the exhibition title, A Standing Place (2004). Shackleton, his men and their ambitions are embodied in this detailed image: 'standing and drawing in the space Shackleton once occupied and sensing the "feel" in the air within this peaceful hut had a profound impact upon me. This type of psychological and physical encounter is invaluable as I seek to invest the exhibited work with retrospective energy, meaning and atmosphere'.5
A lightbox on which Copland's drawings of the hut floorboards is impressed, marks the place where Shackleton and his men once stood: their signatures and the marks from their crampons are specific to the hut. A companion lightbox draped with a weather-beaten Antarctica New Zealand flag shifts Copland's narrative from the security of Shackleton's interior to an unforgiving exterior.
The Lure of Little Voices (2004), a series of white sheets embossed with a snow coated landscape and a lone flagpost, present a disorientating whiteout. A series of prints using the image of the battered flag fade from blue to white, recalling the process of freeze and thaw to reveal secrets, artefacts and memories that exist below physical and metaphysical surfaces. Copland's vast landscapes of blue and white are quiet yet continually shifting.
Margaret Elliot's twilight worlds are snow-coated, and windswept; powerful landscapes caught between the heroic past and contemporary existence. During several visits to Antarctica as both a Fellow and an educator, Elliot has sketched an ever changing land, documenting erosion and formation in an almost sci-fi environment.
In Echoes 3 (2002), tented forms morph into snowy peaks, denying the distinction between man-made structures and those attributed to nature. Perspective dissolves, deceiving the eye into believing that this land, through the absence of landmarks stretches for miles. The inhabitants of flimsy tents, exposed and vulnerable face an uncertain death: the polar race is called off.
Elliot laments Captain Robert Falcon Scott's fate, and portrays the tent not as a point of salvation but as a temporary shelter. These tented spaces are markers of place, history, devastation and ambition. They stand to represent past endeavours while negotiating the artist's position in this layered landscape. The Antarctic experience is defined by the environment but also the people who have traversed the land, both in the past and the present. Tracks, tents and flag posts feature as markers, yet Antarctica cannot be truly conquered or claimed. The snow continues to fall in a land that refuses to remain static.
The haunting images that grace the exterior and interior spaces of Raewyn Atkinson's ceramics recall Scott's fatal journey. Porcelain tin cans and mugs based on the objects located in the huts are printed with photographic images, seemingly rusted by the firing process. The almost opalescent and wafer-thin porcelain evokes visions of cold, demise and fragility. Seemingly coated in ice, mugs 'containing' the infamous photograph of Scott's party are placed together in a group titled Souvenirs; memoirs of a fatal mission.
Atkinson has visited Antarctica on two occasions, once in December 2000 and independently in 2003. Her first visit to the region inspired the creation of the Deeptime core sample series, a collection of earthenware sculptures based on various landscape 'specimens'. These solid forms are likened to geographic fragments extracted from the land. Samples flex and buckle, their receding and protruding surface details breaking a seemingly snow dusted plain.
Translucent porcelain, glass, packing crates and light works are exquisite materials used by Atkinson in recent installations. Fuel (2005), a collection of nine porcelain boxes placed in a packing crate and lit from behind make reference to provisions: the impressed logo refers to a brand of fuel used for Scott's South Pole expedition, and reappears in Homelight (2005). Several porcelain containers, stacked atop each other, each marked with the words 'Home', 'Light' or marked with the fuel logo, recall Atkinson's own act of survival. Sleeping in a snow shelter created by the artist influenced Atkinson's consideration of survival and exploration in the past and the present day. The translucency of her medium is informed by the diffused light that seeped through the roof of her snow hut.
Current projects respond to the impact of recent human exploration, namely whaling and tourist operations, themes designed to challenge our perception of the polar region begging us to consider the possible demise of Antarctica. During both visits, Atkinson documented undisclosed aspects of Antarctica, placing them alongside heroic tales set within vast and empty landscapes. Atkinson reminds us that even from a distance we place Antarctica at risk. While we view the continent through the lens of idealism, Antarctica is not a tabula rasa or vacant space. Maps, photographs and diagrams collected by the artist are valuable resources skilfully transferred to Atkinson's three-dimensional forms.
Likewise, Anne Noble's earliest photographs of the continent do not subscribe to popular visions of Antarctica. In Goal Posts, Antarctica (2002) Noble documents a scene laden with irony and disbelief: black poles set against a white 'empty' landscape interrupt what might otherwise be a picturesque uninhabited scene.
Noble explores the creation of landscape and grandeur by identifying aspects of Antarctica otherwise forgotten. A photograph of The Expedition Towel (2002) made for the 1958 New Zealand Expedition lead by Sir Edmund Hillary, offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of heroes; the little things we treasure and their monumental status in a vast landscape.
More recently, Noble has turned her attention to the construction of perception. Just how have we come to believe that Antarctica is a glistening white world where penguins frolic and snowflakes fall? Noble examines the imaginary world we commonly accept to be real, and reveals the engine behind such thinking. As Sophie McIntyre, curator of Breaking Ice: Re-Visioning Antarctica notes, tourism promotes 'real' experiences and 'discovery', and when we step into targeted tourist centres where these mythical lands are staged, without realising we subscribe to the colonisation of Antarctica.6
Well before his visit south, furniture-maker and designer David Trubridge sought inspiration from nature. His visit to Antarctica has strengthened his design philosophy and since his return to New Zealand he has concentrated on sharing his experience and assessing the significance of place. His view of Antarctica is detailed and unearths naturally evolving art forms, patterns and minute structures found on Antarctica's white ground. He questions the artistic interpretation of a landscape that is 'already abstract, minimalist and conceptual . . . Antarctica is a place of paradoxes'.7
Trubridge and others are compelled by the need to protect Antarctica. Dick Frizzell has returned from the ice and while he initially documented 'graffiti' at McMurdo Station, the American base camp he soon turned his attention to the huts where the past inhabitants and the preservation of these significant sites stole his attention. Interestingly, the point at which artists return to New Zealand and a body of work is created seldom marks the end of what appears to be an ongoing commitment to the conservation of the icy continent. Repeat visits, related projects and innovative practice confirm Antarctica New Zealand's belief that the scheme is worthwhile for artists, both professionally and personally.
While artists bring us closer to the realities of place and present us with global issues we must consider, we remain captivated by their reaction to what for many of us remains an alien land. Phil Dadson's sensory interpretation of Antarctica is alluring and mysterious, presenting an almost interactive experience with the polar landscape. A lone flag, whipped yet standing firm against a gale force wind was filmed for Flutter (2003), a significant intermedia work included in the travelling exhibition Polar Projects. This symbol of colonial power stands unbeaten, defying the odds and the elements. Dadson allows us to experience this ancient landscape through site and sound, referred to by Danae Mossman as 'sonic references for Antarctica, inviting us to hear a space that is usually silent and passive.'8
Like Dadson, Virginia King invites viewers into a virtual world through the awakening of the senses: we see, hear and almost touch Antarctica. Her installation Antarctic Heart is a fluid and subtle reflection on life under sea ice sheets. King's macrocarpa and totara sculptural forms pivot from strings, allowing the reflective and luminous painted surfaces to glide in a darkened gallery space. These skeletal and fossilised structures belong to an underwater world where micro organisms survive in icy conditions. King magnifies these minuscule diatoms or algae, allowing each form to move freely. As they swivel and turn, the process of regeneration is suggested. In the frozen saline lakes of the Dry Valleys, life is teeming with fantastical creatures. Shifting to the soundtrack of Weddell seals, King's sculptures capture a fleeting moment, a secret world and a quiet place in the Antarctic Heart.
Since its inception, Antarctica New Zealand's arts scheme has enjoyed widespread visibility and through quality outputs, has successfully met all objectives. The scheme has connected with unassuming audiences, shifting Antarctica beyond the traditional realm of exploration and science. These shared experiences connect the general public with a landscape that remains geographically distant, yet visually and psychologically close.
The author would like to thank the artists, Antarctica New Zealand, the Adam Art Gallery and the Christchurch Art Gallery for their assistance.
1. Excerpt from 'Primer of Ice and
Stone', a poem by Chris Orman for Raewyn Atkinson reproduced in Terranova:
New Works by Raewyn Atkinson 2000 Antarctic Expedition