Taking steps towards Antarctica – Isotropism

I’ve just read Roland Huntford’s wonderful book The Last Place on Earth. Like Scott who’s unpreparedness for the Poles forms the backbone of Huntford’s thesis, I feel embarrassed to admit that while professing a fascination with the histories of Antarctic exploration I have never read this seminal evaluation of the great race in the austral summer of 1911/12. I knew the story of course. The first academic award I ever received (at primary school at age12!) was a biography of Roald Amundsen, that fixed my everlasting interests in the Poles, the Northwest and Northeast Passages and the potential of Zeppelins! Huntfords’ anti-sentimental analysis of both Amundsen and his doomed competitor Robert Scott in their race to the pole opened my eyes in new ways to the Antarctic continent.

Ever since reading Bill Fox’s analysis of our changing perceptions of and in the Antarctic, I have been focused on the notion of isotropy in the Antarctic environment.  Fox begins his book Terra Antarctica – Looking into the Emptiest Continent with the statement – “How the human mind transforms space into place …. is most easily traced when watching the mind at work in large, unfamiliar and relatively empty environments, where we often have difficulty understanding our personal scale in space and time, versus the temperate forests and savanna where we primarily evolved as a species, or in cities that we have constructed to fit our needs.”

Deserts, and the world’s greatest desert Antarctica, present isotropic qualities to our senses – no matter which way you face whether you look near or far, the same scene presents itself. This is most extreme in a whiteout where even up and down are impossible to distinguish. In such an isotropic environment our perceptions can’t be trusted and our minds create illusions or misguide us in consequence. Explorers, scientists and artists working in Antarctica deal with this in varied ways but all must face the cognitive dissonance presented by an isotropic landscape.

Fox describes the strategies and experiences of artists dating back to William Hodges who sailed with James Cook’s on his first encounter with the Ice in 1773/4.

Two contemporary artists whose works Fox describes shed light on the isotropic qualities of the Antarctic. The New Zealand photographer Anne Noble who first visited Antarctica in 2002 “photographed in whiteouts and took pictures straight into white snow and white skies. She pushed the lack of definition in the landscape so far that, when she turned in her films for processing, the photo lab called her up to alert her that there was “nothing” on the film. That’s exactly right, as what she was investigating was the cognitive ambivalence of isotropy.”

Another example “Sandy Sorlien applied to the NSF (the US National Science Foundation) in 1995 to work in the visiting artists program but was not selected. She decided instead to photograph close-up landscape scenes in the North East, primarily New Jersey during the Winter, as analogs.” “By manipulating vantage point and scale, Solein balances an interrogation of how we cognitively frame geography with her desire to see the Antarctic, an emotional context seldom examined in a non-sentimental fashion.”

Sandy Sorlein 1996, Polar Explorer Self-Portrait, New Jersey

Sandy Sorlien 1996
Polar Explorer Self-Portrait, New Jersey

Sandy Sorlein 1996  Snow, New Jersey

Sandy Sorlien 1996
Snow, New Jersey

So why am I so interested in this matter of isotropy? I’m currently designing an ‘instrument’ for possible future deployment in the Antarctic and have been pondering its form, function and meaning.

Following my experience of the making and using the wind activated Bærnjo at the Bær Center for the Arts in far Northern Iceland last summer, I have wanted to continue making objects that respond to environmental conditions by making sounds.  My latest ‘instrument’ will be a hybrid between a sampling device, a small field station, a sculptural structure and a resonant instrument for producing sound. It will be compact and portable, in a specially constructed case. It will be set up and operated in the field, and photographed in-situ. It will act as a base of operation to collect sounds generated by environmental and atmospheric impacts on the ‘instrument’ (especially wind). I imagine the sound will be created by both the tightly tuned guy wires securing the ‘instrument’ and from a set of strings arranged internally around its central mast that will be bowed by a wind driven device attached to the top of the mast – a wind-powered Aeolian harp and hurdy-gurdy that you can sit inside!

But why deploy such a device in the Antarctic. What will it reveal?

Thinking of the potential of deploying such an instrument in the far South I remembered the epochal image of Amundsen and his men saluting the “Polheim” (Home of the Pole) that they erected at the South Pole following their meticulous but flawed efforts to ensure that they had located the true geographic pole. For me this whole effort strikes me as more art practice than scientific. The pole is as strangely notional as Tom Friedman’s 1992 artwork entitled “Untitled (A Curse)” which consists in its actual manifestation of an 11” sphere of space cursed by a witch, located 11” above a standard gallery pedestal (valued at north of $30,000 at its most recent sale).

Tom Friedman 1992 entitled Untitled (A Curse)

Tom Friedman 1992
Untitled (A Curse)

Once Amundsen and his crew had decided that they were as close to the ‘pole’ as possible (and had covered and marked enough ground around it to ensure polar priority) they planted a tent and put letters and notes inside. In all directions for hundreds of miles lay the featureless and thin-aired Antarctic Plateau with absolutely no outstanding physical markers. A blank page in all directions with only their own tracks in the ice marking the presence of any living being.

Amundsen and team with the  "Polheim".  December 17, 1911

Amundsen and team with the “Polheim”.
December 17, 1911

Richard Byrd described the pole in 1930 after his visit. “The Pole lay in a limitless plain…One gets there, and that is about all there is for the telling.”

As Fox outlined, all sense of scale, distance and perspective can collapse and invert in the isotropic whiteness. Huntford retells Amundsen’s quintessential isotropic experience. Mere tens of miles from their goal en route to the South Pole Amundsen’s teammate Hassel had a dark feature catch his eye in the white on white landscape –

“Do you see that black thing over there?” Hassel called out urgently as they were making camp on the 13th. (December 2011)

Everybody saw it.

“Can it be Scott” someone called.

Bjaaland ran forward to investigate. He did not have to run far.  “Mirage,” he reported laconically, “dog turds”

The explorers’ sensory space and psychological space were conflated. Perspective in both was lost and something as insignificant as a dog turd blossomed into both a sizeable object and a boogey man of defeat! (or perhaps alternatively, Norwegians have a robust sense of humor).

There’s an interesting article about the search to find the original Polheim here. It’s thought to be buried under 60ft of accumulated ice and have wandered perhaps hundreds of feet from its original (rather uncertain) location along with the  movements of the ice plateau.

Stephen J. Pyne in his expansive and deeply textured book The Ice – A Journey to Antarctica has pointed out that “The journey from core to margin, from polar plateau to open sea, narrates an allegory of mind and matter”. “Antarctica is the earth’s great sink, not only for water and heat but for information. Between core and margin there exist powerful gradients of energy and information.” “The extraordinary isolation of Antarctica is not merely geophysical but metaphysical. Cultural understanding and assimilation demand more than the power to overcome the energy gradient that surrounds The Ice: they demand the capacity and desire to overcome the information gradient.” Pyne compares the concentric ice terrains defining the Antarctic continent to “the ordered rings comprising the hierarchy of Dante’s inferno”.

Pyne describes two separate gradients that seem to run in parallel. As the pole is approached the physical landscape becomes increasingly isotropic and featureless (the information gradient approaches zero), so the scope for the human imagination to write its own meanings into the landscape increases.  The lack of physical bearings unmoors us from the real world and we float into the worlds of metaphor and imagination.

All that inexorable isotropic whiteness and our predilection to read meaning into the void reminds me of one of my favorite sentences in English literature – Herman Melville’s efforts to explain both the sublime and the horrific aspects of the great whale Moby Dick as embodied in its whiteness –

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things – the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

Yes, that’s one sentence!

My brother Christopher first pointed out to me that perhaps the greatest example of horror and the sublime in literature is the dreaded ‘blank white page’ faced by all artists and writers (including Melville we know) – the page awaiting our imprint, like footsteps in the snow.

And so back to my question as to the form and meaning of my hypothetical ‘instrument’.

Thinking along the path outlined above it’s clear that the  ‘instrument’ should be intrinsic to the isotropic field on which it will be situated – visually, acoustically, and experientially.

It needs be white and of a form that might confound a viewer. Is it a natural formation? An icy extrusion of the landscape? A beached bergy bit? Or a manmade intervention? A shelter? A piece of scientific equipment? An icy turd?

Similarly the sound created by the instrument will be amorphous – haunting and eerie and once again questionable. Part of the landscape or an intrusion? Natural or manmade? Is there some structure within the sound? Some meaning?

And finally the experience of viewing the instrument in a gallery setting should also be disorienting and re-present the isotropic field. Its scale should stretch the expectations of the space in which it is installed to make it clear that it lives in space of another scale and the experience of entering the ‘instrument’ should transport the viewer to a larger aural, visual and experiential space.

Documenting the instrument in situ will contextualize the experience within its isotropic space.

The scale of marks.

Figure ground relationships.

The separation of signal from noise.

Strategies for negotiating a blank canvas.

Navigating the space of imagination.

The role of the viewer as agent.

How to distinguish art from shit.

All of these matters seem essential to the enquiry of art making!

Don’t you think?