James Norcliffe reviews Artists in Antarctica for takahē


James Norcliffe reviews Artists in Antarctica edited by Patrick Shepherd:

'I couldn’t help but gather adjectives from the first few pages of this handsome book: brutal, fearsome, desolate, hostile, extreme, unforgiving, bleak, inhospitable, unpredictable, forbidding… There is in fact a thesaurus load of such adjectives to describe Antarctica, our near neighbour to the south. Time and time again, the nearly forty artists featured in the book underscore and develop this theme. 

Simply put, the Antarctic is not a place at all suited for human habitation. Surviving in Antarctica originally demanded tremendous fortitude and endurance; today it still requires these qualities albeit tempered by space-age technology and all the resources of the modern state.

Even so, visiting demands you live, as Gareth Farr the composer, puts it, in ‘a space-station-like environment’ (p.92). ‘Everything there’ says jeweller Kirsten Haydon, ‘is fundamental’ (p.113).  ‘I felt,’ said Graeme Sydney, ‘I was on another planet’ (p.206). And as the editor – or perhaps curator – of the book, artist and composer Patrick Shepherd says, ‘There are constant reminders that we’re not supposed to be there…’ (p.194).

All of the showcased artists would agree with these sentiments, but at the same time, all agreed to take up the offer to go to the frozen continent to experience first-hand its rigours and its wonders and be inspired by these to create works of art.

The offers to the artists came from Antarctica New Zealand’s Community Engagement Programme, formerly the Artists to Antarctica and Invited Artists Programme. We are told that more than one hundred artists over a field of artistic expression have visited Scott Base since 1957. Patrick Shepherd has gathered thirty-seven of these, including painters, fiction writers, poets, photographers, composers, dancers, and multi-media artists to share a sample of their work and to comment on their experience in the few days they spent on the ice.

The result is a sumptuous collection of images and writing: a beautiful book to dip into or to devour in one sitting. There is a useful introduction by the editor on the background to the arts on the frozen continent and the nature of the programme, a theme developed by Adele Jackson in her historical survey of Aotearoa’s Antarctic arts and cultural heritage. Much is made in the book of the synergies possible when science meets art and the book is testament to these possibilities. Of course, once the first wave of exploration-driven visitors had their day, scientific examination reigned supreme. The earliest visitors, from Cook onwards, have given us the near legendary stories of heroism, fortitude and tragedy that still resonate today. Amundsen, Scott, Titus Oates, Evans, Wilson, Shackleton, Mawson and those of their time still tower tall in the public imagination and they have a presence here in the book as well. It would be hard to be otherwise when the dry, frozen conditions have preserved both Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts, the first at Hut Point and Cape Evans and the latter at Cape Royds. For the participants, visiting these huts and looking at the artifacts they contain was an eerie experience, almost as though not only was the landscape frozen, but time had been frozen as well.'

Read the full review here.