Grahame Sydney: ‘Treading in the Icy Footprints of R F Scott’

In 2003 Grahame Sydney travelled to Antarctica as part of Antarctica New Zealand’s Artists to Antarctica Programme.  He reports about his visit to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition base at Cape Evans…

“Scott’s first hut, tiny, wooden and thin, still sits on a small black headland nearby. Not for them the comforts of the hot tub, the sauna, the soft warm beds and the morning shower, the instant emails, the phone calls home, the shop, the hydroponic room, the generators.

The paradoxes are startling and inescapable. Starting with the local geology: this island is volcanic – molten rock amid the ice ocean; Erebus steams away still behind us, a hot water cauldron at the height of Mt Cook, its 4000-metre head mostly in the clouds.

The painful glare of the snow, too much for any squint to cope with, is splattered with beautiful dark chocolate slashes and dribbles of rich, almost black exposed volcanic scoria, barren and blasted like a lunar surface.

It is lifeless, sharp and hard – the dusts have all blown away from here. Scott Base, McMurdo, Discovery Hut; all sit on raw, sterile rock, black ink stains on a vast white blotter. It’s a white world, surreal and hostile. The cold is exhilarating – for about two minutes – then dangerous. Nature is basically trying to kill you here and offers nothing but snow, ice, stone and the weather.

Winds turn a tolerable (with 15cm of insulated extreme weather clothing) minus 12 degrees C into an instantly insufferable, achingly debilitating -25 degrees C hell, and it happens within minutes. Face muscles tighten and numb and I talk like a stroke victim, unable to form the words. One minute exposed and my fingers shriek with acute pain, both in the freezing and the thawing. It is all snow and ice and wind but “snowing” is uncommon. Many on base have never seen it snow.

And for all the snow and ice, dehydration is a constant, indoors and out: dry mouth, sandpaper throat, everyone toting water bottles, sipping can. No water vapour, in fact no water anywhere I’ve seen so far. No bacteria either: unable to wash dishes – we only wipe ’em off with paper towels, any residue freezes to the plate anyway and is not a worry.

The surreal nature of life here is typified by the ice shelf, 100 metres give or take, itself a lifeless, colourless, rough, wind-planed grainy surface, inhospitable to living things. Beneath the shelf however is a marine environment as rich, diverse and colourful as any temperate ocean and an endless delight to scientists.”

‘Treading in the icy footprints of Robert Scott’, Grahame Sydney. “Scott’s first hut, tiny, wooden and thin, still sits on a small black headland nearby. Not for them the comforts of the hot tub, the sauna, the soft warm beds and the morning shower, the instant emails, the phone calls home, the shop, the hydroponic room, the generators.

The paradoxes are startling and inescapable. Starting with the local geology: this island is volcanic – molten rock amid the ice ocean; Erebus steams away still behind us, a hot water cauldron at the height of Mt Cook, its 4000-metre head mostly in the clouds.

The painful glare of the snow, too much for any squint to cope with, is splattered with beautiful dark chocolate slashes and dribbles of rich, almost black exposed volcanic scoria, barren and blasted like a lunar surface.

It is lifeless, sharp and hard – the dusts have all blown away from here. Scott Base, McMurdo, Discovery Hut; all sit on raw, sterile rock, black ink stains on a vast white blotter.

It’s a white world, surreal and hostile. The cold is exhilarating – for about two minutes – then dangerous. Nature is basically trying to kill you here and offers nothing but snow, ice, stone and the weather.

Winds turn a tolerable (with 15cm of insulated extreme weather clothing) minus 12 degrees C into an instantly insufferable, achingly debilitating -25 degrees C hell, and it happens within minutes. Face muscles tighten and numb and I talk like a stroke victim, unable to form the words. One minute exposed and my fingers shriek with acute pain, both in the freezing and the thawing. It is all snow and ice and wind but “snowing” is uncommon. Many on base have never seen it snow.

And for all the snow and ice, dehydration is a constant, indoors and out: dry mouth, sandpaper throat, everyone toting water bottles, sipping can. No water vapour, in fact no water anywhere I’ve seen so far. No bacteria either: unable to wash dishes – we only wipe ’em off with paper towels, any residue freezes to the plate anyway and is not a worry.

The surreal nature of life here is typified by the ice shelf, 100 metres give or take, itself a lifeless, colourless, rough, wind-planed grainy surface, inhospitable to living things. Beneath the shelf however is a marine environment as rich, diverse and colourful as any temperate ocean and an endless delight to scientists.”

 

2003. Life Imitates Art. The Wedderburn community has raised $20,000 to move the Wedderburn railway goods shed made famous in Grahame Sydney’s work, July on the Maniototo, back to Wedderburn. The goods shed had been used for storing coal in Idaburn, about 5km away. The coal mine is now closed and the shed, built in 1900, has been reinstated about 200m from its original site. The community hopes to give the shed its green look, and to have agricultural displays inside for the thousands who pass on the Otago Central Rail Trail every year. Grahame Sydney said from Dunedin he was pleased the shed had returned to Wedderburn, but he did not know how much it had to do with his painting.

“It’s famous as a symbolic nostalgic piece. I think it stood for so much; the rural farming way of life.” He sketched out the art work in the winter of 1974 and painted it over two to three weeks later that year and in early 1975.

2003. Grahame Sydney’s Art Sets Scene. The latest book from Owen Marshall, When Gravity Snaps’, sets the scene with a Grahame Sydney image. ‘Grahame Sydney’s cover conveys the backdrop of the southern man, all that uncluttered space and that light unsullied by the airborne detritus of over-peopled places. And Marshall is truly a southern man, no trace of flamboyance in his appearance, demeanour or prose, modest and quiet, but with eyes as sharp as those of any contemporary writer.’ Gordon McLauchlan, NZ Herald. When Gravity Snaps was selected as a Dymock’s Critics Choice this month. ‘Sharp comedy, sadness, a pricking of pretensions and the search for human connection form New Zealand’s finest short story writer, Owen Marshall.

2003. Judging A Book By Its Cover. A Grahame Sydney image, Fog at Stan Cotter’s, gave Brian Turner’s new book the edge over 178 other submissions. Turner’s new book of poetry, Taking Off, was judged first equal Best Cover in the 2002 Spectrum Print Book Design Awards. These awards have set out to celebrate the book as an aesthetic object and to reward book designers. Taking Off is designed by Sarah Maxey and published by Victoria University Press. As well as Grahame Sydney’s art making Taking Off an award winner, it has also been short listed in the Montana Book Awards. Brian Turner’s first book of poems for a decade finds him in fine voice. Taking Off distils the experiences of an eventful decade, with Brian Turner’s characteristic wit and feeling. The poems are of separation, the relationship with his aging father, departed friends and of living life in Central Otago. “That is the kind of raw material every poet welcomes and Turner has the sense to tell it straight rather than clutter it with imagery or filter it through metaphor. Turner is, after all, the Southern Man’s poet, friend of the stark realist painter Grahame Sydney whose striking landscapes never feature people.” Sarah Putt.