From Walrus Hunts to Melting Continents: The Shifting Art of Polar and Alpine Regions

February 23, 2016

 Lita Albuquerque,  Stellar Axis, Constellation 1 , 2006.

Lita Albuquerque, Stellar Axis, Constellation 1, 2006.

The earth’s polar regions are the site of some of the greatest moral, political, and economic conflicts of our time. Though the scale of human activity in these areas is not enormous, the impact of scandalously shortsighted growth is realized most destructively in these remote places. Images of these areas have become increasingly common as they melt away, causing damage across the globe. But Vanishing Ice, at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, examines the different ways in which artists have represented Antarctica, the Arctic, and other glacial and alpine regions over the last two hundred years

For someone as fascinated by our planet’s polar regions as I, most of the works in Vanishing Ice are enrapturing — provoking dueling sensations of awe and jealousy. Jean de Pomereu’sFissure 2 (Antarctica) (2008), a nearly perfect photograph, elicits these strong emotions. A sheet of sea ice and an iceberg in the background blend together in a white haze that renders each almost unnoticeable. A crack in the sea ices creates a thick black line running straight towards the immobilized iceberg. The fissure feels like a portal to some mysterious abyss — a geologic Narnia.

Installation artist Lita Albuquerque hired de Pomereu to document her ephemeral Stellar Axis (2006) project, in which 99 large blue spheres were situated on the Antarctic ice sheet to mirror stars invisible during the constant summer daylight. Over fifty researchers from the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, wearing identical bright red parkas, walked from the center of the installation outwards, tracing a giant Archimedean spiral in the snow. De Pomereu’s photograph from the series included in Vanishing Ice documents the otherworldly blue orbs resting suspicious only the ice sheet with no human presence — reminiscent of a sci-fi invasion movie. The landscape and the spheres are so incongruous that the image looks digitally manipulated.

Subhankar Banerjee also exploits polar regions’ ability to wow and confound in Caribou Migration (2002). Though the photograph’s title sorts out any initial confusion, the image itself resembles a block of ice covered by trails of ants, as unlikely an Arctic scene as that is. The work is taken from Banerjee’s Oil and the Caribouseries, documenting the relationship between resource extraction and wildlife in Alaska’s north

A wall of reproductions of paintings contrasts with the extremely crisp and high resolution photographs. Ranging in date from 1841 to 1933, these images don’t simply differ in medium, they suggest that, at least with the artists, a major shifting in representing and thinking about polar and glacial subjects. Greenlanders Hunting Walrus: View of the Polar Sea (1841), by French artist François-Auguste Biard depicts a group of hunters in kayaks amongst a chaotic scene of towering sea ice, rocky waves, and a think perilous atmosphere. Icebergs punch through the surface of the ocean like fists and cover much of the canvas. Frederic Edwin Church, a member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters, creates a more emotionally subtle scene in The Icebergs (1861), but it nonetheless relies on emphasizing that grandiosity and weight of the floating monolith it pictures. Each of these strays from the more common contemporary representation of these subjects as fragile or powerless, or as objects of scientific study.

Though even more stunning than the iceberg pictured in Church’s painting, the one photographed by Richmond-based artist Camille Seaman off the coast of eastern Greenland looks anemic floating in the sea that will eventually swallow it. Though scale is difficult to determine, the iceberg’s size does not impress, nor did Seaman emphasize its mass by filling the frame. Instead, the blackness of the sea and sky, contrasted with the almost unreal luminosity of the ice, creates a powerful image. Icebergs are actually increasing in number, and their size is sometimes described in the news in units of “Manhattans.” But these numerous, and sometimes gigantic, icebergs are a result of scorched places like Greenland and Antarctica crumbling into the ocean. And no matter its actual size, the iceberg Seaman pictures possesses a certain delicacy and melancholy.

Throughout all of these works there is something of a celebration of nature. From the distant observer to the adventurer to the climatologist, these places represent extreme, if unorthodox, forms of beauty. This remains unchanged in works from before the first oil refinery was built to a time when we are witnessing these landscapes vanish. It is fascinating, however, to see how the treatment of this beauty has changed as our species' relationship to the environment has changed. Places that were once seen as romantic and untamed nature, are now places of scientific inquiry, ecological consequence, and the hope of holding on just a little longer.