White Cube Mason’s Yard, London
3 September–2 October 2010
by SOPHIE ARKETTE
Unseen and untrodden under their spotless mantle of ice the rigid polar regions slept the profound sleep of death from the earliest dawn of time.1
The above quote comes from the opening passages of the diary of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, who in 1893 set sail for the Arctic in the hope that he might reach the North Pole. His stratagem for travelling across the Pole was to have his ship, the Fram, locked into the ice and for the ice to carry it over the Pole. Given that his method of locomotion was slow, he had time enough to write his journals describing the ice formations and the weather condition and the contrast of light and darkness, according to the winter and summer months. In particular, Nansen had an interest in ice floes, and he meticulously recorded the details of their size, texture and growth, and the effects of tidal pressures on the ice, and motion of the floes as his ship moved up the Kara Sea, inching its way along the Russian coast. On one occasion he records his observations on the pressure caused by two colliding floes. He writes:
The ice is pressing and packing round us with a noise like thunder. It is piling itself up into long walls, and heaps high enough to reach a good way up the Fram’s rigging; in fact, it is trying its very utmost to grind the Fram into powder.2
Such an ice conflict is undeniably a stupendous spectacle. One feels one’s self to be in the presence of titanic forces … For when the packing begins in earnest it seems as though there could be no spot on the earth’s surface left unshaken.3
The Arctic ice floe has also been the subject-matter of a number of explorers and whalers, including William MacKinlay who describes whilst trapped on his ship in the ice near Wrangel Island, north-east of Siberia, the deafening noise of the ice: of its grating, screeching and crashing, which he likened to a gigantic orchestra.
Darren Almond, in his exhibition at the White Cube Gallery, shares a fascination with the geography and ice formation of the Northern hemisphere and in particular the region surrounding the Siberian city of Norilsk. His exhibition consists of two filmic works entitled Anthropocene: The Prelude (2010), and a series of photographs depicting the same portion of land. Of his filmic works, the first piece contains images of ice floes moving and colliding one against the other. The two vertically rectangular screens are positioned with a space between them, through which the viewer obtains a glimpse of a third screen: a road rendered in high contrast black and white film. In viewing the film of the moving ice, which is accompanied by low-pitched sounds of what seems to be creaking and crashing ice overlaid with a continuous drone, one notices, firstly, the way he uses the images on the two screens: in some sections of the film, the images on the screens form a palindrome and in doing so exemplify the more abstract patterns of light and shade within the composition. At these moments, the viewer is aware of the movement of the camera against the movement of water and ice; and also the opposing movement between the two screens themselves. This overall tension in movement seems to produce a rhythmic composition that stand in relation to the patterns generated from tension caused through the movement of the shifting ice floes. These intricate patterns emerging out of the sequence of images are further enhanced by the aerial position of the camera, which flattens out the surface, making it more abstract, less pictorial. Almond’s control of the image also contributes towards its richness, for the use of colour in certain sections of the film, particularly the presence of the ochres and greens, reveal details in the landscape previously hidden. A comparison can be made between an image of a landscape in silver nitrate and the same image solarised, where the latter throws up information about the scene not recorded by the former.
Of Almond’s work, there is a sense of its evoking other images, for instance, those eerie red and blue and metallic landscapes found in the later parts of Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps it is Almond’s intention to produce a film depicting a slice of Arctic landscape as anonymous, in accordance with the 19th century view of that region as being something unknown and as such unlocated: the white spaces represented in maps, which were known as “sleeping beauties” by cartographers of that age. After all the region above the Arctic Circle was up until recently an uncharted territory which served to fuel the collective imagination and to bring about such images as those described by the writers, John Cleve Symmes (1818) who wrote of the poles as being two gateways into the interior of the earth, and Mary Shelley whose book Frankenstein (1816–7) draws vivid descriptions of the monster retreating into the wilderness of the Arctic terrain.
But it is not only the barren landscape that forms the subject-matter for Almond, his work also includes a fascination with the changing weather conditions, which is most evident in the work The Principle of Moments (2010). This work which spans the entire wall space of the ground floor gallery consists of small gem-like photographs depicting the same scene: an outcrop of land surrounded by sea conveys different quantities of information in virtue of the changing weather conditions: sometime the landscape is hidden by a blanket of fog, or the glare from the sun; at other times, its clarity is obfuscated by the diminished light, and yet other times its detail is pronounced through the play of light and shadow. This meticulous documentation has been brought about by photographing the scene every minute over a period of a week.
What seems integral to Almond’s exhibition is the sense of change, whether it is the movement of the filmic process or the movement of the camera position or the movement conveyed in virtue of a sequence of still images or, in the case of the third screen of the work Anthropocene: The Prelude, the movement of the snow by the raging wind in a otherwise desolate road scene.
1. Nansen F. Farthest North (Introduction by Roland Huntford). London: Duckworth, 2000: 3.
2. Ibid: 116.
3. Ibid: 117.