Week 19: 15 January 2012
These are my Nowhereisland postcards. They are my souvenirs from our journey North.
Wish you were here.
Why is the idea of the north so precious?
North is explicitly or implicitly the direction from which all other directions are taken.
If you lose your north star it is a metaphor for confusion, or madness. Ursa Minor, North Star, Pole star, give the Arctic its name, from the Greek ‘arktikos'.
The top edge of a map is north, north is up. There isn’t a simple geographical or political definition of its territory.
In Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ Marlow recalls being a child and his early passion for maps, particularly the blank spaces on the map, with the North Pole being the best of these blanks.
Perhaps this accounts for the inexplicable pleasure offered by a road sign on the M1 that simply says ‘The North’.
As you advance towards the idea of the north, the true north seems to move further away. Disorientation, losing your way, allowing a space of ‘unbelonging’ to form, a place of uncharted possibilities and reflective insight. Nowhereisland.
What does the idea of the north mean to you?
Souvenirs are little pieces of elsewhere that we cling to and keep close when we go ‘home’. To remove something from its place of origin means bringing the properties of that original space away. Totems, momentos, fetishes and artworks.
In 1970, the artist, Robert Smithson proposed a ‘Floating Island’ made up of rocks and trees from New York’s Central Park to be pulled around the Island of Manhattan. In 2002 Francis Alys worked with five hundred volunteers to form a line on a giant sand dune; with shovels they pushed sand forward and moved a mountain from its original position.
Artworks have narratives and stories. They explore, stretch and challenge, represent values or concepts, with many layers of meaning and content, but most importantly they just are. They also have to be dumb, mute, physical things, manifestations beyond that which was imagined before, floating in the ocean of our sensory experience. You don’t have to squeeze content out of a treasured thing, you just need to be able to see and feel what’s held there.
How do birds know to travel north?
Many birds migrate to breed in the long summer days of the north. The sun assists with their navigation, but they also have the ability to detect the magnetic fields of the earth, and they combine this skill with the use of visual landmarks that form a mental map. Some of their knowledge is genetic, and some of it is learnt.
The genetic component of this navigation skill means a bird knows how to fly north but not for how long. Like having a compass but not having a map. The magnetic fields vary at different latitudes so eventually the bird can sense a measurement of how far it has come and when it has reached its destination. The Arctic tern is a circumpolar bird famous for its migration; in one year it will travel from its Arctic breeding grounds to Antarctica and back again, and sees more daylight than any other creature on the planet.
An Ivory Gull flew over us when we were in the Arctic. It is a bird that never leaves the Arctic Circle, feeding on scraps left by polar bear kill, nesting in glacier cliff faces, and it is the whitest thing I have ever seen.
At home I look at the birds when I walk along coastal paths and marvel at their traveling.
Lines and Knots
A knot is a measure of speed at sea. The term derives from a length measure used on ships. Loglines were thrown overboard so that the log remained stationary in the water while the logline trailed out from the vessel as it moved forward. After 28 seconds the number of knots were counted – these were spaced along the line at 47 foot intervals and the number of knots in 28 seconds corresponded to the speed of the ship in nautical miles. Sometimes in the Arctic our ship was into fierce wind for hours and at full engine it traveled at no more than 0.1 knots. The idea of a prevailing or understood wind seemed redundant here, winds seem to start and go round in circles.
Wind knots, were believed to be for sale from the witches of the north: this was a strong strap with three knots tied along it; untying the first knot would produce a gentle breeze: the second would be undone for a stronger wind; and the third unleashed a colossal gale.
The distance between Longyearben and Weymouth is over 2000 miles depending on how you measure it. When measuring a coastline, the smaller the ruler the bigger the measurement becomes as the smaller ruler can take in more variation in the line being measured. Nowhereisland will make a journey of over 500 miles in real sea, in real weather. Nothing can be certain about the challenge of that.
The horizon is the most utopian of all landscapes, the line where the sky and the sea meet. The perfect horizontal. Originally the word meant ‘the limit’ but it has come to mean immensity, and beyond the horizon is utopia. I am not sure the horizon has ever seemed bigger to me, than from a boat in the Arctic Ocean. The sky was sometimes full of a sunset that went on for hours. The arc the sun traveled was completely disorientating; barely dipping below - or rising above the horizon – as strange as watching an eclipse, and despite my attempts to rationalise its journey, it made me think I was on another planet.
We drew the line of our journey onto maps and charts. We crossed a line into International Waters. A line is drawn around the 66th parallel to define the Arctic Circle. Nowhereisland will draw its own line around the southwest coast of England. The lines in the ice of the glaciers were like lines in wood grain, the glacier telling its own story in a language that is explicit if illegible.
If we all left wakes or trails behind us, what would your line look like?
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, narratives of polar exploration played a prominent part in defining the social construction of masculinity, symbolically enacting out the men’s own battle to become men. And out of these narratives of the man and the hero, runs the parallel story of nationalism in the race for the poles.
But this is not the case in the world of the child’s imagination. The ice world is not masculine but rather it is a remote kingdom ruled over by deliciously terrifying female powers. My first imaginative journey to the north was with Hans Christian Anderson ‘The Snow Queen’. Reading it over and over as a child, and anticipating the tears that came so easily to both Gerda, and me, when Kay’s heart is frozen by a glass splinter. The Snow Queen seemed to reappear a couple of years later in my reading as the White Witch in C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Most of my journeys to the Arctic have been through reading myself there, books are travel for me. I never thought I would actually physically be in such a place.
Sonya was the only female member of the crew, the cook, who seem to know exactly what we needed, a different sort of power. A softly spoken Dutch woman who made wonderful bread every day in her tiny well-kept galley kitchen. Her only indulgence a handful of photographs of friends and lovers tacked to the wall above where she kneaded the bread. Her favourite watch, was to be sailing at the helm on a clear long night, when the sea was so big that the electronic instruments for navigation were rendered redundant by the size of the swell, and you had to just pick a star and follow it.
The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard is an underground structure built one hundred and twenty metres into a mountain and contains the world’s seeds. It is both Eden and the Apocalypse. Every culture has its creation myth and an end of the world story. The current global climate crisis makes for a compelling narrative of how we are hurtling towards our own extinction and this is a story that has to be attended too more urgently.
Nowhereisland is a birth story, the birth of a new nation with its own people. We need to take care of something so young, nurture it while it learns to speak, to move, and to be. The more fragile it is the more care it needs. That is how to judge a society.
There was a hard frost on the ground this morning. This dark week in January is going to be cold in the UK; it’s below freezing now as I sit by the fire writing these postcards. In Svalbard it is 20 degrees below freezing and completely dark all day. I went out early this morning to breathe cold air into my lungs, to inhale something from the north, to see the frost describe every blade of grass, drawing the landscape in a frozen outline, and understanding again how the cold and the north remind us how fragile everything is.
Wish you were here.
Tania Kovats is an artist who was part of the Arctic Expedition for Nowhereisland last September. She is Alex Hartley’s partner of over twenty years and has been involved with Nowhereisland from its beginnings. All her artwork is about our experience of landscape and she works primarily in sculpture and drawing. In 2006 she moved a wildflower meadow from Bath to London on a canal boat via the inland waterway system. She published “The Drawing Book’, 2004, after being the Henry Moore Drawing Fellow. In 2006 her traveling landscape museum ‘The Museum of The White Horse’ made a three month journey around the south east of England and came out of a two year Visiting Fellowship at the University of Oxford School of Archaeology. Her work ‘TREE’ can be seen at the Natural History Museum in London as a celebration of Charles Darwin’s legacy and was made to permanently mark his bicentenary. This work came out of a six-month journey around south America with Alex and their son. Her next work will be for an exhibition ‘The Enchanted Isles’ and is made in response to her trip to the Galapagos Islands on a Gulbenkian Residency Program. She lives and works in Devon.