Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Arctic Post - Thurs 13th Oct Fuglefjorden - how darkness and light are bound together

Thursday 13.10.2016 Fuglefjorden - how darkness and light are bound together
-2°C, 3m/s. Sunrise 10:11 sunset 17.15. 9-10 m/s
A pre-breakfast Zodiac trip has been planned; it’s still dark when I arrive on deck. Can’t see any stars yet, a luminous green sea and dark land mass is silhouetted against the sky. The group of early-morning risers clamber into the Zodiacs, and travel out into a sea of ice, leaning out to push large chunks of looming icebergs out of the way.

The sea and ice heave slowly – almost as though breathing, ice turning and moving away. We get close to the glacier, a massive wall that looms above us.
 Still dark and snowing slightly, falling flakes glisten in the flash from my camera. No-one speaks, it feels magical, gently traveling around the bay in a sea of ice as dawn begins to break, apricot in a clear sky. I sometimes can’t quite believe where I am.   

The ship comes into view in front of us in a blue world surrounded by chunks of ice.

We are traveling in a vacuum, a small band of international artists on a boat high above the Arctic Circle - an improbable place with its own contested history of struggles and exploitations, of politics and power, darkness and light, myths and realities - and it’s difficult to think of what might be going on at home in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Since we left Longyearbyen most of us have had no contact with the outside, no phone, internet or radio. We occasionally talk politics (more often we talk about food and next meal or the next place we will arrive at); the Americans artists are all fed up about the looming election and the possibility of a Trump triumph, some talking about leaving the country to go to live in Canada and I can’t say I would want to stay in a ‘trumped up’ America; another artist is struggling with visas to leave one country and go to another. 
There are a few domestic concerns for some, but as one of the guides remarks to me, being in a cold distant place helps to get away from heightened emotions … it becomes a form of protection -  The sky seems closer to the land. I feel such a small dot in the landscape that I feel so insignificant that it makes problems disappear. Nothing ever happens that is important when I am away in the north’. Someone else when I ask her about her sense of north says that she feels that there is no space or time for the superficial here - it cannot survive - no time for drama. ‘North is to me the place that makes you go on a pretty straight path to the essence of it all/everything. It can be hard (conditions) and has extremes, taking you quickly to the essentials of living and surviving, and in that of life - actions, relations, words, intentions, thoughts, meanings’.

There is the old ambiguity about going up there to find or lose oneself, but it is perhaps more that the far north, and particularly the High Arctic, intensifies experiences rather than providing answers or transformations. Canadian artist Glen Gould made a radio documentary programme of sounds and words and silences called the Idea of the North.  For Gould the idea of north was as a metaphor for the sheer physical profundity of the northern land, ‘an escape from the limitations of civilization .. as something ‘other’, separate, away from society; a state of mind within which lay creative possibilities. He concludes that this vast irreducible territory is a strength, a constant reminder of the need for unity, a source of saving humanity rather than seeing it simply as a source of wealth for natural resources. 
Author Peter Davidson in his book The Idea of North  (2004) refers to its ‘absolute difficult beauty’. Trying to grapple with all this and make work is interesting – and challenging. Sometimes the landscape seems to just draw itself – it looks like drawings rather than reality - out of this world – and I wonder what I can add to it.  Davidson writes:
      a persistent myth of the north in our own time is that the exploration of the Arctic is morally pure, connected with concepts such as rigorous self-discipline and self-knowledge, allowing artists to cling to the popular belief that northern regions are untouched, pristine. It is both reality and imagination, both rich and dangerous, a northern haven, but also a harsh dark place’.


It becomes a clear bright morning. Breakfast over there is a landing on Svidjotholmen (or ‘Spikeholmen’ after Spike one of the artists traveling with us), I’m really torn between going to the island and staying on the deck to work; in some ways I should make every opportunity to go on land. In the end I stay and work on deck. 
I watch silhouetted figures moving around on the island, dwarfed in front of the massive shape of Svidjotbreen, and hear the noise of a large glacial calving, which I’m later told causes a big wave to hit the island. I’m sure I’m going to regret not going… but will I gain anymore from drawing on land rather than looking at the land from the sea?
Midday we sail south, the wind has dictated our direction. So this is as far north as we are going to get, I feel disappointed. Cloud hovering and descending, mountains disappear reappear disappear reaching up into the sky and I’m not sure where mountains stops and sky begins anymore. A thunder grey and pale blue world, pale turquoise blue-green sea, dark ripples traveling fast across its surface. We pass chunks of ice, one looks like a swan with wings outstretched, then a large intensely turquoise piece – it doesn’t look real.
Snowings again, four seagulls flying just above the sea, a dark line against white. 
A dusting of new snow on the mountains, dark jagged teeth above smooth snow covering. We pass glacier after glacier; I wonder what early travelers made of all this, a place of horror or wonder?

In the book ‘Arctic Dreams’ author Barry Lopez remarks:

'...It is as though the land slowly works its way into the man... The land becomes large, alive like an animal; it humbles him in a way he cannot pronounce. It is not that the land is simply beautiful but that it is powerful. Its power derives from the tension between its obvious beauty and its capacity to take life. Its power flows into the mind from a realization of how darkness and light are bound together within it..”.


Mid afternoon, snowing so heavily that I can’t see anything; we sail on in our own white world and take turns to sweep the deck.


Late afternoon the snow stops, the sky clears, the sun setting pink-orange reflected in light green pink-tinged sea, dark clouds. 

I stay on deck desperately trying to paint as the wind picks up - 9-10 m/s; it’s icy and my paint begins to look a bit like those slush puppy drinks kids buy. 

There’s still a very cold wind blowing. Most of the mountains remain shrouded in grey mist, sea turns dark blue black, a Guillimot flies by.

Evening, we anchor at Fjortende Julibukta and drink mulled wine on deck in the dark.