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High Arctic

August 13, 2011
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London: The unfortunate Horatio Chapple of Eton College was not the only one exploring the remote Svalbard archipelago a week ago, I was also there, albeit in a safer, warmer, more convenient way, and with my dad.

My dad navigates the high Arctic

High Arctic at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is a unique and moving exhibition by United Visual Artist Matt Clark, who last year travelled to Svalbard on the Noorderlicht, a 100-year-old schooner. The Cape Farewell expedition team, consisting of scientists, artists, musicians and poets, set off to explore the warming Arctic landscape as its ice recedes, and Clark’s interpretation is a thought-provoking and haunting installation in the museum’s new basement extension.

Stacks of ice and terrain between them

We enter a darkened room – a twighlight world of strange Polar light – clutching our UV torches to navigate the many ‘ice-stacks’ that fill the landscape. Each stack is inscribed with a name that is only readable by torchlight, and that is the only reading material. The exhibition is set in 2100, and as we explore the piles of ice, the disembodied voices of previous Arctic explorers fill our ears.

The UV torch interacts with the light displays

Ancient Greek explorer Pytheas tells us of his voyage in 330 BC to the land of Thule (thought to be around here in Svalbard, but possibly Iceland or Greenland), describing a place where “there are no nights at all” and where “there is no longer any proper land or sea or air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish”. Does he mean the  shifting sea ice, or is he simply enjoying the returned explorer’s opportunity for fantastical description?

Disappearing ice in Svalbard

We move from one delightful mariner’s tale to another, all the while marvelling at the shadows and light cast in the eerie gallery. Between columns of ice, expanses of flat terrain dance under our torches. There are pools of sea ice that shift and coalesce like Pytheas’s “no longer proper land or sea”, and snow storms of drifting sparkles, all cleverly designed to interact with the torchlight.

As we emerge, several latitudes south, the curator tells me that visitors have complained about the lack of explanation, reading material and traditional museum material. It’s an immersive experience, an exploration – it’s very different from any exhibition I’ve seen and refreshing for it. Words are not the only way to convey meaningful information about the threatened Arctic environment.

Global warming is speeding up melting of Arctic sea-ice, but a study out this week shows the process is more complex than we thought, and ice coverage is likely to fluctuate over coming decades. Perhaps there will be enough left for me to see firsthand, when I get around to visiting the region.

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