Monday, April 20, 2009

Seeing & Vision: Antartica

Before reading William L. Fox's article "Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent" the only image I had of our southernmost continent is the above image of penguins set in a landscape of snow and glaciers. Up until this point I also thought the Arctic and Antarctic were virtually the same-- the only difference being that polar bears lived in the North (and Santa!) and penguins were in the south. Beyond this distinction I had never really examined these two geographical areas in a scientific or artistic way.

[Satellite Image of Antarctica]

While reading through Fox’s article, what came up right away was the difference between the Arctic and Subhankar Banerjee's depiction of it and Fox's description of the Antarctic. Banerjee's goal was to depict the ANWR in a way that shows how it is tied to the rest of the world; he did this by including evidence of global warming and also by exploring the communities that are native to the area. There are no indigenous populations in Antarctica, however, and Fox depicts the region as barren, harsh and disorienting. He describes the conditions of the continent to be so foreign that we as humans don’t have the biological facilities to fully understand the landscape.

[Photos by photographer Anthony Powell who currently lives and works in Antarctica]

Fox argues that since our species evolved in relation to a savanna-which contains both grasslands and trees—we are used to comprehending landscape in terms of placemarkers in the environment (like trees) and judge distance by the way particulate matter in the air scatters light (features in the distance become mistier and take on a blueish hue ie atmospheric perspective in painting). In Antarctica there are no trees and the atmosphere does not scatter light in the same way so there are no visual cues in which to aid those exploring this harsh terrain. During the most extreme weather conditions, in what’s known as a whiteout or Ganzfield, there occurs a visual field without contours; a human reaction to this phenomena is the loss of balance and coordination which can progress into a complete (though temporary) loss of vision.

Continuing the discussion about space and place from last week, Fox applies the same principles to the region: “A severe challenge in the Antarctic is trying to develop a sense of place where our ability to sense the space itself is so compromised.” In the Antarctic humans cannot rely on their vision alone as the conditions do not mesh with what has been genetically and culturally conditioned into us. It is in this space that we can explore the role that biology plays in art, in particular how it shapes our perceptions and artistic vision. Fox describes this translation as such: “human cognitive process that first turns land into landscape, then landscape into art.” (xv) It is this failure of our biology that has also led us to mapmaking, “cartography was the cultural means we deployed to overcome our neurobiological limitations in new and extreme spaces” (24). Through a map we can chart distances in a way that seems more objective and can be measured scientifically—but what are the implications of charting the Earth’s surface into grids? Fox seems mapmaking being related to power, “when we grid a landscape…we end up making the assumption that we rule over the land.” Through maps we create borders and superimpose boundaries rather arbitrarily, it relates more to a sociopolitical context rather than a relationship to the actual terrain.

[1934 map of Antarctica--click for a larger view]

One of the most intriguing points that Fox bring up in the article is how our tradition of landscape art can be considered a mapmaking activity. I had never before connected these two genres before but when looking at older, more detailed maps I can begin to understand the relationship between these two forms of depicting the land. Fox describes landscape art as “a way of getting us from the familiar ‘here’ to the unfamiliar ‘there’.” This is particularly true in photography, the images of various natural and cultural landscapes allow us to access what may otherwise be unfamiliar to us (in terms of both visuals and experience).

While a lot of the imagery I found of Antarctica were in the vein of National Geographic, I did find the below project done by American artist Jan Estep. Estep works in several media, including textiles in the form of installation. Below is my favorite piece, it's titled "TopoAntarctica" and is made from polar fleece and ripstop nylon.

[Above an installation view and two details below]

Another piece she created is titled "Language Snow Crystals" that are drawings of snowflakes made up of lettering. Estep says of the piece: "Language Snow Crystals present an image of a snowflake built up by language, the loops and line of the hand-written words approximating the lace-like structure of actual snow crystals. The text comes from two sources, Ernest Shackleton’s diary South and various medical manuals about hypothermia, what happens to the body physically as it slowly freezes and ways to protect the body from severe cold."

I leave you with a time lapse video done by Anthony Powell during his stays in Antarctica.

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