“Art from the Arctic”

I have just watched a fascinating film on BBC4 – Art from the Arctic.

A boatload of almost wholly British artists (there was a token French photographer) were taken to Spitzbergen, where they looked at the glaciers in wonder, and created pieces of artwork; and talked.

The scenery was beautiful – it was an excellently photographed film – and whilst the scenery was beautiful before the artists were there, the fact that they were there brought the scenery to the screen.

But it was how the artists reacted and interacted with the landscape – the water, the ice, the light – that was the core of the film. The focus of their attention was on climate change and the impact of man on the environment. (The irony of their own, damaging presence on the snow and ice of the Arctic was not lost on them; the writer Ian McEwen was most eloquent on the subject, suggesting that they were an allegory for the destruction caused by the rest of humanity.)

Anthony Gormley (together with another artist, whose name I forget) created coffin-sized shapes in the ice: one a block cut from the ice, another built from walls of ice, and the third a hole cut in the ice; they were beautiful shapes, translucent and ethereal.

Gormley later had himself cast in ice. (My wife and I had been wondering what he would do: Gormley commonly uses his body as his own model, but we couldn’t believe that he would lie on the ice so that his shape would be retained. We lacked his imagination: he etched his body shape in the ice using water, then he lined the cavity and let the water freeze. The next day, there was an ice-sculpture of his form. My wife had gone to bed by this point; I had to wake her up to tell her how he had done it; she laughed.) Gormley photographed his ice-image in a variety of weather and light; it was rather magical.

Rachel Whiteread felt at a loss – “I don’t think quickly enough” to work in ice, she said; but she walked, and kept the images of her experience to build the installation she created last year in Tate Modern, vast pyramids made from white blocks, ordered and disordered, resembling the mountains and the glaciers and the ice she saw. She said that the dependence on the boat and her fellow travellers made the experience claustrophobic, despite the vast spaces: because of the risks, she could never be alone (not least, the danger of polar bears).

Siobhan Davies, a choreographer, was also uncertain how to create work from the environment: she felt that dance was almost absurd in the subzero temperatures, when the cold made any movement difficult. The film showed a line of people – the artists – moving slowly across the snow.

There were some beautiful ice-sculptures, both found and created: someone made a series of lenses of ice: they had wanted to use the ice to burn something, a metaphor for global warming. It didn’t work, but they photographed the ice in different lights, at night with a flash (though they hadn’t developed the film, so couldn’t say what it looked like; the nascent art sitting on the film), in the sun, in fog.

Another artist was obsessed by the naming of the landscape, and he searched for newly exposed islands, previously hidden by the retreating glaciers, which he could name. He climbed, somewhat dangerously, and surveyed his new found land; I don’t know what he called the island, though.

Max Eastly (I think) worked with sound, using the wind to create the soundtrack, which was haunting.

All in all, it was a remarkable programme. There must be a website with their images somewhere; if I find it, I’ll post it here. Sorry – I can’t find any images anywhere!

[Edit] I found the website of the Cape Farewell Foundation, who organised the trip: http://www.capefarewell.com/

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