Nancy Campbell on the Antarctic art of Emma Stibbon
The art of losing isn’t hard to master; So many things seem filled with the intent To be lost that their loss is no disaster. (‘One Art’)
A few weeks after returning from the Arctic, I was discussing travel – or rather, homecoming – with a British friend who had lived in Vienna for several years. I confessed that I felt bereaved by my return to Europe, that I had been stunned by an acute sense of physical loss. She gave me a sharp look. ‘For me it wasn’t so much bereavement,’ she said, ‘as unrequited love. Losing a place you never belonged to start with’.
Travel and desire: two states that offer ecstatic heights and a long way to fall. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in New England, but living for many years in Brazil, understood the way familiar landscapes melt away. In the villanelle ‘One Art’ she describes the tendency of objects to disappear:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
By the final stanza of this poem, it’s apparent that small losses prefigure cataclysmic endings. Bishop wrote that loss is ‘no disaster’ with deep irony, decades before the loss of rivers and continents became more than mere metaphor.
In contrast, the artist Emma Stibbon views loss as part of an inevitable cycle of change. Stibbon has spent a significant part of the last decade recording depopulated and isolated landscapes, including Antarctica and the Alps.
The long journey from London to the Antarctic via South America is, even in modern times, one that a traveller undertakes knowing they may not return. At best, they return so changed that the familiar self is lost. Stibbon documented her experience, taking photographs of icebergs, ice sheets, ice streams and ocean water from the deck of a Russian liner. She watched mountains rising out of the fog, and passed over Drake’s Passage, the dangerously mutable straight where ocean tides converge. This journey, held only in the mind and on a memory card, was recorded back in the artist’s studio in the Antarctic drawings.
Humans are compelled to travel. The nomadic instinct is barely quelled by a growing awareness of the environmental consequences of flying. Human movement around the globe is as adamant as the advance of glaciers through mountain ranges during the ice ages. Where communities do settle, people weigh down the land with their lives, as bedrock is compressed by ice.
But Antarctica is almost free of settlers: the only human inhabitants are temporary visitors, the scientists who dispassionately analyse ice at research stations. They will tell you that a trip to Antarctica is a journey across time as well as space, for Europe experienced similar climate conditions during the ice ages, when glacial sheets covered the earth as far south as London and Bristol. There were no human witnesses to these icescapes: Neanderthals had not yet evolved. Today’s glaciologists are archaeologists – excavating those past changes in climate – and, increasingly, prophets of the shift in temperature to come.
The study of the cryosphere is aided by recent inventions such as the ice core, a tool that cuts through millennia of ice deposits to collect samples of air trapped between ancient snowflakes. For when snowflakes are buried beneath further snowfalls, they compress and form layers of firn, a granular substance which contains residual atmospheric gases and solid matter such as wind-blown dust, ash and radioactive particles. Deep in the ice the firn is pressed thinner, and annual layers become indistinguishable. At Vostock station in the Antarctic scientists sent down an ice core to a depth of 420,000 years. The ice core revealed evidence from four past glacial cycles: temperature, ocean volume, rainfall, gas composition of the lower atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, solar variability, desert extent and forest fires. Ice is a more effective witness to climate than tree rings or sediment layers. Ice is a substance that can be read.
The ice that Stibbon observed on the Antarctic peninsular is changing. Between 1995 and 2001, warmer melt season temperatures caused the Larsen Ice Shelf (discovered by Captain Larsen of the Jason one hundred years ago during a whaling reconnaissance mission) to lose 2,500km2 of its area; it is now 40 per cent the size of its previous extent. Other Antarctic ice shelves are following this pattern, as are glaciers across the world, including the Alps. Between 2000 and 2005, the World Glacier Monitoring Service examined the terminus of glaciers in France, Switzerland and Austria. All were in retreat. Almost three per cent of Alpine glacial ice (around one metre in depth) is lost each year. In the past, glacial melting occurred when atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) were 280 parts per million. Today’s CO2 levels approach 385 parts per million. The disappearance of the glaciers is more dependent on time than on increasing temperature: it is inevitable even if the atmosphere is maintained at current levels.
Stibbon’s work is impelled by such statistics. An animation, Retreat (2008), depicts an Alpine glacier moving towards the viewer through a cleft in the mountains. The advance seems to be in fast-forward; within a few seconds the screen is filled with a close-up, at which point the ice itself appears as a cloven, mountainous landscape that diminishes and breaks apart in turn.
Where water is versatile, its frozen form is intransigent. Ice overrides all other objects, forcing rocks ahead of it, splitting mountains. The glacier scores the rock with a white line, as intently as an artist’s gouge passes through a woodblock, leaving striations which are only revealed when the ink is rolled out. As glaciers retreat, melting little by little, the valley’s contours remember them. Just as the pockets of air trapped within the firn can be interpreted, so the spaces between mountains provide evidence of ice that vanished long ago.
A similarly telling physical correspondence exists between the whaling ship and the body of the whale it hunts. Herman Melville was aware of the irony: ‘To me this vast ivory-ribbed chest, with the long, unrelieved spine, extending far away from it in a straight line, not a little resembled the hull of a great ship new-laid upon the stocks’ (Moby Dick, 1852). The ships that sailed out to explore Antarctica were motivated by the desire for oil: in 1904, after Larsen had discovered the ice shelf named after him, he founded the first Antarctic whaling corporation, the Argentine Fishing Company. Within a few years whales were being decimated in the Antarctic, where whaling industries produced around 70 per cent of the world’s oil.
A century later, offshore oil and natural gas fields have been found in the Ross Sea – although exploitation of mineral resources in the Antarctic is banned until the year 2048 by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. In the meantime, science is today’s form of exploration, the new industry of the polar regions. But what happens when the scientist reaches terra incognita, an area of water so dangerous that normal sea rules do not apply, where a ship will not be rescued if it gets into trouble?
As climate change intensifies, will humans be able to adapt to the hostile environment? Human extinction would appear to be a disaster, unless homo sapiens is seen as an insignificant species in the long natural history of the planet. Such a view is possible in the desolate, unpeopled expanses of Antarctica, which evoke a vaster timescale. But even the concept of ‘geological time’ betrays human interest, complete with its chart that strives to make æons comprehensible for human imaginations by comparing Earth at 45 billion years to a 45-year-old person – yet illogically one in whose life homo sapiens only emerged in the last second. The designers of the timechart were influenced by the work of the geologist Charles Lyell, who also inspired Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. (Fittingly, the only book that the explorers Scott, Shackleton and Wilson carried on their desperate 1902–3 sled journey across Victoria Land in Antarctica was Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.)
The timechart was designed in the nineteenth-century heyday of geological discovery, which – like the polar exploration of the period – was a paradoxically Eurocentric pursuit. Britain’s influence is reflected in the local names chosen to represent global eras: the ‘Cambrian’ (from Cambria, the Roman name for Wales), the ‘Ordovician’ and the ‘Silurian’ (named after ancient Welsh tribes) were periods defined using stratigraphic sequences from Wales. The ‘Devonian’ era was named after rocks from the period found in Devon, and ‘Carboniferous’ was simply an adaptation of ‘coal measures’, also gesturing towards Wales. The ‘Cretaceous’ (from Latin creta meaning ‘chalk’) referred to beds of chalk (calcium carbonate) deposited by the shells of marine invertebrates – primitive creatures which may yet prove to outlast humans on the planet. It was in the late Cretaceous period that a continental collision formed the Alps, the first mountain system to be extensively studied by geologists, and subsequently recorded by Stibbon in a series of white chalk drawings on blackboard.
‘Nothing can ever be created out of nothing’, wrote Lucretius, in De rerum natura. ‘Visible objects do not perish utterly, since nature repairs one thing from another and allows nothing to be born without the aid of another’s death.’ The material that we believe lost is only buried under layers of more recent debris. Eras are defined by their rocky residues. Geologists read stone strata just as climatologists read an ice core. These stories told by stone and ice are set down once more in chalk and graphite. Stibbon employed chalk as a subtle, base medium in the Antarctica series, where the nuances of ice are represented by drawing with graphite, and occasionally watercolour, onto gesso-prepared board. The elements course through these drawings, like sediment trapped in seams of glacial ice. Unlike the resilient artist’s gouge, the soft chalk or graphite leaves a part of itself behind as it makes its mark.
In alchemy, sublimation is one of the twelve core processes. A substance is heated to a vapour, then immediately collects as sediment on the neck of the alembic. Separation through sublimation was ruled by Libra (♎), the astrological sign that regulates the balance of the seasons and the length of days.
Ice sublimates in the polar regions, its molecules changing from the solid phase to the gas phase without taking liquid form. Explorers experience mirages and other optical illusions: solid objects disappear in air faster than ice melts and floating islands appear on the horizon during the endless summer nights. Mariners knew these islands as fata morgana, the enchanted palaces to which the sorceress Morgan le Fay lured ships. Their specious paradise cost many lives, as the missions that set out to find once-glimpsed but nonexistent lands sailed off the map, chasing tricks of the light.
The disappearing Antarctic ice is given a reprieve in Stibbon’s images. Here ice forms can be captured at the corner of the eye, more like ghosts than glaciers. Stibbon represents elements in their most equivocal phases: the convergence point of solid and liquid, freezing and melting, light and shadow. She records the moment fog descends, the density of condensation, even an intangible drizzle. The images are as illusory and mutable as the phenomena they represent. How can this line on board convey the depth of a mountainside? How can chalk become condensing water? Or ink, air? Pigment, the absence of light in a space? Where does the drawing begin? It begins with a mark. A line. A thought. A journey.
The polar regions challenge Western scientific perception. It is hard to describe glacial ice in any medium. Nearly all explorers, even those duty-bound to provide records, end up expressing only their own inarticulacy in the face of these numinous visions. For example, C. J. Sullivan, in his narrative of Sir James Clark Ross’s expedition, recalls:
‘Beholding with Silent Surprize the great and wonderful works of nature in this position we had an opportunity to discern the barrier in its Splendid position. Then I wished I was an artist or draughtsman instead of a blacksmith and armourer ... We Set a Side all thoughts of mount Erebus and Victoria Land to bear in mind the more Immaginative thoughts of this rare Phenomena that was lost to human view. In Gone by Ages.’
Stibbon’s Antarctic drawings are an oblique record of ‘rare Phenomena’ which, like stars from distant galaxies, no longer exist by the time their image reaches our eyes. The curator Andreas Telow, writing about Stibbon’s German StadtLandschaften series, notes the artist’s interest in Albert Speer’s ‘Theory of Ruin Value’: ‘According to this theory, the massive buildings of the self-styled “Thousand Year Empire” were planned and materials for them carefully selected, so that they would impress even as ruins’. A culture which plans its ruins for sublime effect shows more ambition and arrogance than even Shelley’s Ozymandius (‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’).
In contrast, in Eskimo Realities (1973), a study of art and perception in the Arctic, the anthropologist Edward Carpenter suggests that in cultures where transience is more evident, process is valued over preservation:
‘Art and poetry are verbs, not nouns. Poems are improvised, not memorized; carvings are carved, not saved. The forms of art are familiar to all; examples need not be preserved. When spring comes and igloos melt, old habitation sites are littered with waste, including beautifully designed tools and tiny carvings, not deliberately thrown away, but, with even greater indifference, just lost.’
Emma Stibbon will have a major exhibition – on icebergs – at Galerie Bastian, Berlin, from Friday 16th January, 2015.
Nancy Campbell's poetry and artist’s books are a response to the coastal communities of Northern Europe and the Arctic. Since working as Writer in Residence on the remote island of Upernavik in Northwest Greenland in 2010, Nancy has undertaken residencies in Iceland, Denmark, the US and the UK, where she is currently Visual and Performing Artist in Residence at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. Her critical writing is widely published and she is the editor of international contemporary art magazine Printmaking Today. www.nancycampbell.co.uk
Header photo from Captain Scott's Hut, Ross Island, by Velvet Android, licences under Creative Commons.