Exploring sublimely ridiculous Antarctica
An animal’s life span, set against geological time, also features in Kathryn and Roy Nelson’s Skeletal Crystal – Ram’s Horn, in which the ram’s horn of the title harbours a crystalline interior, as though a kind of geode. Damien Flood’s paintings, which posit alternative geographies on the basis of speculative philosophical and physical theories and myths, describe how we visualise the unknown, and are a good way of conveying our evolving picture of Antarctica.
If a reminder were needed that in Antarctica humans are working at the limits of their abilities and of technological possibility, it came just after Christmas in the form of the headlines around the world, that the expedition Crystalline was designed to mark had reached an impasse.
The expedition was led by glaciologist Martin Siegert, one of the team that discovered Lake Ellsworth in 2004. Among the many challenges it faced was finding a way to avoid contaminating any organisms in the lake, which has been under the ice – now more than 3km deep – for many thousands of years at least.
The team’s plan was to drill through the ice using purified hot water over five days, making contact with the lake only for 24 hours, after which the surface would freeze again and remain protected.
Alas, on December 27th Prof Siegert announced that technical difficulties meant the team would not succeed and the project was being called off. Worse, getting to where the team is now entailed 10 years of planning, and Prof Siegert estimated it would be four or five years before the team could return with a reasonable hope of success.
Competitiveness between American, Russian and British researchers in Antarctica recalls an earlier era of Antarctic exploration – Crean’s era.
Two paintings by Mark Joyce in Crystalline refer to the conjunction of extreme environments and scientific thought. They stem from a visit to Iceland and embody the way the extraordinary can trigger our curiosity, spurring us to figure out an underlying rationale.
As it happens, Joyce has an excellent painting, Antarctica, made in 1996, which got its name from Derek Mahon’s poem, dedicated to Richard Ryan.
The poem refers to the self-sacrificial gesture of Lawrence Oates, a member of Scott’s expedition. Mahon refers to the absurdity of the heroic expeditionary age, but also what remains exceptional about it, in the refrain: “At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.”
Crystalline, Millennium Court Arts Centre, William Street, Portadown, Co Armagh, until Jan 26th; millenniumcourt.org; tel: 048-2838394415