TCS Daily


Ice, Ice Baby

By Josie Appleton - August 1, 2006 12:00 AM

The Arctic is becoming a place of pilgrimage for those who want to raise awareness about global warming. David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, recently made a high-publicity trip north, negotiating the ice in a dog-sleigh to show his commitment to the issue. In March 2005, Cape Farewell led a team of artists on a six-day expedition to the seventy79th parallel, with the aim "collectively [to] address and raise awareness about climate change". The results are now on show at the Natural History Museum in London, in an exhibition titled "The Ship: The Art of Climate Change."

The Cape Farewell Project, now in its third year, brings together creative types with the aim of "using the Arctic as a source of 'artistic' food", and also hooks artists up with scientists and educators. The 2005 voyage included such Brit-art names as Rachel Whiteread, Gary Hume and Antony Gormley; the novelist Ian McEwan; and the dancer Siobhan Davies.

What the Natural History Museum exhibition shows is that trips to the Arctic aren't just about exploring the facts of global warming - melting icecaps, changing salinity, and all that. They are also about exploring the different metaphors of global warming, which are really new narratives of human existence.

One theme that runs through the artworks is that of the smallness of humanity and the insignificance of human history. Cathy Barber, a media artist, celebrates the Arctic's "dark sense of scale and perspective", which we can "easily become detached from in cities"; far north, she says, "the concept of a 20-million-year timeframe actually seems to make sense". The Arctic is seen to have a timeless truth lacking in our restless lives. The Australian artist Michéle Noach spelled it out: "The desolation, the absoluteness of the 80th parallel...wrestles with everything we carry around in our choice-drowned heads. Its pared down world of clicking ice and sharp air.... These are true." In her log of the trip, Noach writes: "How tempting, the absolute zero of this life."

Another theme is that of creeping human destruction. One video piece showed the erosion of a chunk of iceberg, the waves lapping and the iceberg creaking down until finally exploding off and floating away. Our everyday activities -- driving, shopping, even breathing -- are presented as corrosive, eating away at pristine icepacks. Ian McEwan describes humans as a kind of plague on the planet: "The pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs are generating a heat -- the hot breath of our civilization. How can we begin to restrain ourselves? We resemble successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit." We are apparently a freak of nature, an aberration in the slow unconscious motion of evolution -- in Gormley's words, a "gnat on the nose of a totally different universe".

Humans are shown not only as destroyers, however, but also as a fragile and threatened species. A piece by Siobhan Davies shows a dancer becoming increasingly entrapped by metal spikes pinned to her back. At first she pings them playfully, but gradually through her movements entangles herself until she struggles like a trapped bird. Another work by David Buckland showed a slip of a human figure superimposed on black ice; its resemblance to a candle flame suggests that it could easily be extinguished. Gautier Deblonde's photos feature Arctic settlements, but by their traces only -- an abandoned piano surrounded by sheet music and coat hangers, or a figure disappearing into a lightened doorway.

The Arctic has long been a place for defining the meaning of humanity. In the "heroic age" of late 19th and early 20th century exploration, daring types raced to locate passages for trade or to be the "furthest north", and eventually to reach the North Pole. For them, the Arctic was a wilderness to be conquered and humanized. In Farthest North, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen asked himself why explorers time and again endured darkness and extreme cold on trips that generally ended in failure or death. His answer: "It was simply to satisfy man's thirst for knowledge.... the spirit of mankind will never rest till every spot of these regions has been trodden by the foot of man, till every enigma has been solved." Their photos showed less of the icebergs and more of their own exhibitions on the march, or -- on the few occasions they made it -- posing with national flags in hand.

Perhaps the human spirit hasn't reached absolute zero yet. The Natural History Museum exhibition includes the sculptor Alex Hartley's claim on an island that he discovered emerging from melting ice: his maps, letters and photos are displayed in a collage, from formal letters to Norwegian authorities informing them of his "Notice of Succession" to a photo of Hartley laying claim by means of a note in a baked beans can. But here the desire to humanize nature appears as farce, a gesture that nobody takes that seriously. Plus there is the subtext of protecting the island from large-scale settlement: Hartley informed the Norwegian authorities that "No naval base or fortification will be built and no mining activities will take place on the island."

Rather than launching another polar pilgrimage, perhaps the best that we could do for future generations is to celebrate the chatter of human life against the implacable wilderness of the Arctic.

The author is a TCS Daily contributing writer and coordinator of the Manifesto Club.

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3 Comments

Ice?? Where??
This must be a hoax! The new opus courtesy of Al 'Internet' Gore clearly implied that there is no Arctic anymore. If I cannot believe a politician whom shall I believe?

Googling Ice
Google Earth impacts science
UPI, August 1, 2006

The world's scientists are increasingly using Google Earth's digital globe, which has also attracted millions of non-scientists around the world.

Although Google Earth wasn't intended for scientific work -- merely as an entertainment feature -- the Google search engine's extraordinary globe has become useful for such widely differing functions as TRACKING DIMINISHING ICE SHEETS, locating crime scenes and monitoring volcanoes, Der Spiegel reported Tuesday...

...Google Earth's popularity among ordinary users is influencing the entire scientific community. "Google Earth offers globally available data in a very straightforward manner," Klaus Greve of the Geographic Institute at the University of Bonn told Der Spiegel. "It's also very appealing to researchers who were previously intimidated by (geo-information systems) software."

http://www.upi.com/NewsTrack/view.php?StoryID=
20060801-012716-8100r

Google Earth -- http://earth.google.com/

Brit-art?
From the article: "The 2005 voyage included such Brit-art names as Rachel Whiteread, Gary Hume and Antony Gormley; the novelist Ian McEwan; and the dancer Siobhan Davies."

Brit-art? Which branch? Elephant poo-poo molding? Dead sharks in formaldehyde?

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