It is not the blanket of snow settling outside my window that has triggered this post. It was Hiraki Sawa’s new show at Parafin which started my longterm memory stores pinging with past MI artworks featuring scenes of snow and ice. This often blank landscape acts as a ready-made canvas on which the filmmaker can draw and has been the backdrop for many of my favourite MI works. For me, its superficially charming ambience always carries an aura of bleakness and tragedy instilled in childhood by encountering the story of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition and Hans Christian Anderson’s heart-rending tale of lost love, The Snow Queen. The unsettling other-worldliness of snowbound landscapes was fully exploited in Sawa’s 38 minute, two channel video installation, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017).
Sawa had found a perfect location. On an iced up lake shot in darkness he created a circular stage lit by a movable light-source recording the digging and probing of a small team of performers whose shadows seem as important as their own figures. We follow a close-up of a lamp and its filament as it drops into the depths beneath the ice. In one memorable sequence the lamp is twirled like a lasso around a performers head producing shadow effects similar to a time-lapse sequence of the sun traversing the sky. Without a narrative we a looking at a work of abstraction with images of threat and comfort competing for dominance. At the Parafin Gallery preview show Sawa had brought his young family. The noise of Sawa’s excitable infant children broke through the eerie tinkly sound track but then I realised that they were chiming with the recorded sound of children that Sawa had used to accompany a homely, poetic sequence featuring enormous black balloons floating through the snowscape.
In 2003 Darren Almond brought back footage from the Arctic and Antarctica and created a stunning two channel video installation 11 miles… from Safety at the White Cube. I remember to this day the visceral impact this had on me. On one screen we dimly follow the back of the artist as he trudges through the Arctic night drawing a sledge on which an infra red camera is mounted. His anxious face is spotlighted when he turns to the camera at intervals and with the ambient sound of his heavy breathing we are drawn back to Scott’s doomed trek.
On the opposite wall we contemplate the peaceful passage of the ice strewn ocean shot from a boat gliding sedately across an Antarctic seascape. Like Sawa he distils the fear and grace of this forbidding landscape but with a simpler, less cluttered approach. Much of Almond’s work has been shot in polar regions and the video interview, gives an engrossing insight into the attraction of this landscape for the artist.
In 2005 Pierre Huyghe also made a trek to Antarctica and the ambitious video that emerged from this trip, A Journey That Wasn’t shown at Tate Modern in his Celebration Park exhibition in 2006 has etched itself in my visual memory. Interesting how artificial light sources and disembodied spheres crop in up in both the Sawa and Huyghe films.
Guido van de Werve’s film Everything is going to be Alright shot on location in the Gulf of Bothnia, just south of the Arctic Circle, shows the artist striding just ahead of a giant icebreaker. The peril he is in dissipates the longer you watch it and the ludicrous scene somehow sums up the absurdity of human hubris.
Isaac Julien’s True North (2004) was filmed in Iceland and Northern Sweden as stand-ins for the treacherous polar landscape traversed by Robert Peary’s pioneering expedition to reach the North Pole. A blank whiteness fills the screen but we catch glimpses of a speck trudging over the ice. This figure, the narrator tells us, is not Peary but his African American assistant, Matthew Henson who was with him all the way but had been erased from the historical account. To compound the artificiality of the landscape which is quite different from the jagged ice floes on the Arctic Ocean, Henson’s role is taken by a female actor, Vanessa Myrie. This reversal reinforces Julien’s point about the mythic nature of historical representations. This was shown at Victoria Miro in 2005 paired with Fantome Afrique and raised the concept of the creolising of spaces and crossings which Julien has continued to explore in his work.