Exploring sublimely ridiculous Antarctica


Portadown group show ‘Crystalline’ probes Antarctica’s seductive landscapes

It’s twice the size of Australia but Antarctica is by comparison a terra incognita, with an average, and tentative, human population of just a few thousand, made up of scientific researchers and “expedition tourists”. It remains apart because it is so remote and inhospitable. The strongest Irish links, historically, are probably the early 20th century expeditions led by Ernest Shackleton and of course Tom Crean’s extraordinarily heroic role in Captain Scott’s tragically ill-fated 1911 attempt to reach the South Pole and Shackleton’s subsequent Endurance expedition.

Nearly all of Antarctica is covered by a vast ice sheet (although there is some concern about the melt rate of the ice in west Antarctica). Consequently there are hundreds of hidden, subglacial lakes distributed throughout the land mass.

Some have been discovered only relatively recently. These ice-sealed lakes are obviously fascinating for researchers. They promise clues about the origins of life, for example, and its capacity for survival in extreme environments, on Earth and elsewhere.

The US, Russia and Britain have all mounted efforts to drill through the thick surface ice and obtain samples from the lakes beneath.

To coincide with the recent British expedition to explore Lake Ellsworth in west Antarctica, the Millennium Court Arts Centre devised a group exhibition, Crystalline, on “the twin themes of scientific endeavour and the landscape of Antarctica”, a landscape which, above and beneath the surface, “has proved unfalteringly seductive to artists”.

The theme could have been devised with Dorothy Cross in mind. Her work often ventures into the curious, problematic terrain between art and science. She has also herself ventured as far as Antarctica. Her 2005 video of that name plunges us into the icy depths of the sea there, tracking divers at work.

It’s all the more disorientating because it’s screened in negative, without any explanatory framework. The reversal of tones transforms white snow and ice into black, fearsome masses and dark-suited divers become floating, ghostly presences.


Claire Muckian goes for a comparable reversal with her sculpture Lake-mountain, in which an inverted iceberg becomes a peak – or vice versa. Norwegian artist Jana Winderen uses only sound but uses it brilliantly, working with field recordings made deep within glaciers and in the sea, generating exceptionally spacious and atmospheric soundscapes.

Ruth le Gear’s two films, beautifully evocative of immense, stark, alien environments in which the human scale and time scale are rendered insignificant, stem from a residency near the opposite pole, in the Arctic Circle.

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

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