Challenged by Frozen Continent

The Herald, 17 January 2013. 

Antarctica’s barren environment has flummoxed and troubled artists for five decades – not least because its cold prevents them from gripping a pencil or paintbrush. Nearly 50 New Zealand novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, composers and photographers [including Grahame Sydney] have been invited to document the ice since 1957, with few undaunted by the assignment.

Young adult novelist Tessa Duder, who spent three weeks in the Ross Dependency in 2007, said: “Everybody does what they can but I don’t think any of us are really equal to the task.”

Antarctic Arts Fellows told the Herald that Antarctica had offered them everything and nothing. On one hand it was a completely new landscape seen by very few people. On the other, it was nearly devoid of colour and simply too big to fit on a canvas. Poet Bill Manhire, who was one of the first official fellows in 1997, said visual artists usually resorted to portraying the coastline, icebergs, or rock formations because most of the continent was so white that it offered them no sense of scale or depth. His wrote in the poem Forecast: “White inside the weather, / white shadow, white shine: / low and high / white all the time.” The Wellington-based poet chose to write short, rhyming verses because it was too cold to hold a pen in the field and rhymes were easier to remember when he returned to his notepad at Scott Base. But the rhythm of his remembered verse also gave a sense of structure to an environment which was too vast and unnerving to grip on to. Musician Dave Dobbyn said his most inspiring moments were entering Ernest Shackleton’s hut and wanting to fall to his knees, and half an hour of “utter, utter silence” on a walk to Mt Erebus.

Faced with the problem of translating this experience to music, he focused on producing a wordless, ambient soundscape based on the noise of boots trudging on dry snow, flags flapping in the breeze, and howling wind returning to swallow the silence. Painter Grahame Sydney had a lifetime fascination with Antarctica since his schooling, where he sobbed in the back of an assembly hall as the rector read aloud the explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s last diary entries.

On his visits to Antarctica in 2003 and 2006 he was “appalled and shocked” by the absence of colour and texture in the landscape – a stark contrast to the rich Central Otago terrain he was used to. But he came to be thrilled by an environment reduced to the most basic elements of rock, ice and snow, and the constant dusk he witnessed in October and November. “I realised that you didn’t need much in terms of subject matter to make a memorable picture,” he said. “My photos became more and more about less and less.” After returning home he produced six paintings of heavy, leaden cloud separated by tiny bands of light and road markers shrouded by gloomy snowfields. His Antarctic experience marked a watershed in his career.

“[Returning to] Central Otago, I was much less afraid of doing paintings that have nothing happening in them.”  and said  his work had been profoundly strengthened by his visit to the ice: “There is no going back.”

The Polar Explorer’s Love Song

The goddess Hypothermia

came and held me tight

and as we kissed we drifted

in the pale, pure light.

Antarctica was in her heart

and ice lay on her breast;

she was the warmest lover and the best.

She made the glaciers advance,

she made the ice shelf shine,

she made the skua bird take flight

above her love and mine.

 Bill Manhire, 1998