The New Zealand Herald: ‘Freeze Frame’

The New Zealand Herald by Alan Perrott.  ‘White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica’ (Published by Penguin).  There must have been some choice central Otago phrases ringing around the emptiness.  There he was, Grahame Sydney, artist, surrounded by a scene straight from his childhood dreams, and his hands were too frozen to work.

He’d tried pencils, but his ungloved hands were too cold to grip them. He’d tried watercolours, but they froze and shattered.

Then he felt the first pangs of nausea and realised that if he persisted he would be in danger of frostbite … damn. “It was just impossible. I normally work very slowly and it simply wasn’t warm enough to keep going.

So I had to make the decision very quickly, within that first hour, that I would resort to a camera …” The results of that decision can be found in White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica, a collection of photographs he took during two trips to the frozen continent in 2003 and 2006.

“The art I’ve done all my life has been based down here in Central Otago,” he says. “It’s regional work. It grew out of a deep immersion and love for this corner of the world and great art does that. But in putting this project together, I started to realise that my connection, fascination and love with Antarctica had been growing inside me in a different way since I was a kid growing up in Dunedin around the US ICE programme.

“We saw the ships, we saw the Globemasters flying overhead; even my grandfather, he was 20 when he saw Shackleton’s ship leave from Port Chalmers. So we’re well aware of Antarctica here. Whenever the American sailors returned from McMurdo Sound, there was great romance attached to that.

“The Dunedin women would line up on the wharf, families would offer them billets, and we’d go down and stare at all of this happen. And I’d heard all the stories of Scott and the great Antarctic explorers at school. I had all the books. “I was developing a connection with the place and even though I’d never been there it was quite real. I just didn’t realise it until I sat down to write the introduction to this book.

Trying to explain it to others explained it to me.” Both visits affected Sydney so profoundly that he all but gave up on sleep in order to miss as little as possible. At most, he says, he got three hours’ sleep every two or three days.

“It’s such an otherworldly place and I knew I was on restricted time. I think that’s where the visual excitement and the adrenal power came from, a combination of sleeplessness and pure stimulation.

It’s a region more notable for absence rather than presence, the sea might be teaming with life, but step 100m from it and it’s almost completely sterile, with almost no colour, no texture. But it’s so crystalline, so beautiful, you can’t find yourself anything else but exhilarated.”

And then there was Mt Erebus. “You can’t not look at it, it’s there all the time and you can’t look at it without thinking of the plane and ‘woop woop, pull up, pull up.”

And Scott.  “I grew up steeped in his story, but to think the tent where they found him, Wilson and Bowers dead in 1912, is now buried deep, carried along with the ice shelf and that eventually they’ll emerge at a cliff somewhere and break off in an ice flow, frozen to perfection… That must be quite hard for the families, really.”