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Week 42: 24 June 2012

Rachel Weiss

Professor of Arts Administration and Policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Tall Tales and Apocryphal Visions

The history of the Antarctic—by which I mean accounts of it—is marked by tales, many of them tall. The visual version of this is, early on, a history of fictitious—or, ‘immoral’— maps and, more recently, the hoax as work of art, or work of art as hoax.

Antarctica poses a particular problem for art. In art, the argument generally goes, the world finds special form: whether this is an internal or external world, issued forth in abstract or mimetic languages, or even the compressed idiom of conceptual ones, the article of faith is that there is a meaningful relation to what is real. And even, that art’s role is to somehow bring our awareness, appreciation and critical reception of the real to bear on it in innovative and productive ways. But Antarctica is different. Sure, it’s real, it’s an actual place, a landscape, a biosphere: but, I‘d argue, an important reason why we are drawn to it is because it is at once so plain and so unreal, so elemental and so unimaginable and, worse, so unrepresentable. And, consequently, many artistic treatments of it tend to emphasize their degrees of separation from their subject, adding a habitual self-reflexiveness that operates in multiple and conflicting ways.

Maybe this is one reason—aside from the über-heroism of the Antarctic expeditionary legacy— that Antarctic art has tended so heavily toward kitsch. Kitsch is the banality of the over-determined and fixated image: it is thus, as Kundera tells us, always watching itself watch, depending on the ‘second tear’ for its punch. And that is just what we do in the face of the ubiquitous penguin, the adorable seal, as we sigh in poignant absorption in those marginalia, which are there because the heart of the matter is not. But my interest here is not in kitsch, but rather in the creative hoax, which is the other school of Antarctic art. I will contend that the Antarctic gives rise to an imaginative process that resorts to the hoax, the knowingly untrue assertion, as a way of mirroring the experience of its subject. The hoax shares with kitsch the redundancy of recursive watching, but departs from it in its final status as counterfeit rather than register. Continually rusing, feinting, and dazzling — in these works it’s a matter of deception and counter-deception: the Antarctic deceives, and the artist counters.

Unknowability seems to be definitional in the Antarctic, serving some function that exceeds geography and logic: the Antarctic stands in the imagination as a presence more important for its confounding than its actuality. It has often been noted that the Antarctic was mapped well in advance of actually being sighted: the imagined continent was drawn in, sometimes with painstakingly rendered coastlines, going back as far as Ptolemy, whose ‘terra incognita’ appeared on world maps regularly for the next 1700 years or so, until it was replaced with an actually sighted land in the 19th century. Antarctica, in those centuries, was an imaginary place, alternately either Heaven or Hell on Earth but consistently there, and consistently fantastic.

And then there is the confounding perceptual regime in Antarctica. The Antarctic interior is a vast ice sheet. With the exception of some microscopic organisms hidden inside of rocks, nothing lives there. The continental perimeter is one thing, with its rookeries and offshore ships, but the interior is radically Other. The White Continent has, it seems, an extremely contradictory albedo, absorbing intense scrutiny and throwing back questions about what it might mean to represent something so alien. As Lucian Freud, the painter of contorted corpulence and grandson of Sigmund, once said: “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes and, ironically, the more real.” But: with a difference. The Antarctic is an optical zone of illusions, occurrences that seem real but are not constituted of the usual substances of our perception: in Antarctica, these illusions are of such scale and frequency that they deserve to share the appellation ‘real.’

Weather and terrain can be indistinguishable. Ice-blink, superior mirages, mock suns, phantom displacements, blindings, refractions and auroras, a bewildering compression of distance, ‘flying seas’ (blizzards), all proceed from the ancient barrier of ice, obliterating perception. The horizon vanishes. This is not simply a biophysical defeat: there is a sharp metaphysical fallout from this failure of vision. It’s not only that we can’t see accurately: we can’t figure out where we are, what is our scale, or what is our meaning. Vision is the sense that orients and stabilizes us, grounds us, defeats vertigo. Vision’s usual task of separation and distinction, of discerning interfaces, depends on contrast. Absence of the horizon equals the inability to grasp the dimensions of what is seen. What is ‘seen’ in the Antarctic, in other words, is not seen, in the sense of knowledge or cognition, but rather is frozen. Expeditions were all about expanding the realm of certainty (for that matter, the statues of Shackleton and of Livingstone—the White Continent, and the Dark one— stand adjacent in London on the façade of the Royal Geographic Society), but the Antarctic serves up a ‘topology of doubt’ in place of the certainty of registers.

Steve Pyne puts it in almost frightening terms: “It is one thing to abstract from life, another to live in abstraction. […] Here, on the polar plateau, there is no cultural geodesy by which to triangulate from the known and the familiar. The coherence of things thins. The enormity and purity of The Ice erodes away aesthetic handholds, polishing the surface into a radiant, terrible reflection. Space becomes vanishingly small, time pauses in frozen hesitation, and the mind disconnects from its referents.”

Here is a paradox: Antarctica is incredibly alien, but it’s not possible to achieve critical distance from it. The hoax is a way of articulating this trap. The visual realism that Antarctica tempts us toward, in the effort to capture it, is also what pushes us into the hoax, the declaration that capture is not possible. Nothing is what it seems there, and so picturing must relinquish its implicit social contract of realism.

To make matters worse, the only feasible way to image the enormity of the polar plateau is from the air. Ed Osborn has noted that it was not until after WWII, and the advent of aerial photography, that representations of the Polar plateau began to separate from the conventions of portraiture, which is to say that only then did the possibility arise of mechanically imaging the essential nature of the ice. This yielded images that were something like Pyne’s radically non-humanist experience, replicating one of Antarctica’s most convincing tricks— the loss of the horizon. Until then, photographers and painters had usually countered the disorienting conditions of flat light or whiteout, and the lack of cues about scale, by including a person, animal or vehicle in the frame— something analogous to all those maps that had posited a great southern continent contiguous to known lands. Such images gave a double message about their subject, on the one hand showing an unimaginably odd place, and at the same time tethering it to human presence and cognition. The fundamental otherness of the Antarctic was thereby, apparently, tamed. In aerial images, however, it was often nearly impossible to register what exactly you were looking at. Aerial photography undid something like five centuries of work that began with the rational spaces created in perspectival rendering. Perspective was empirical: it clearly located the spectator in relation to the scene that was represented. Perspective was not just a representational system, it was a system of knowledge and a philosophy of experience. But aerial images— like much earlier labyrinthine systems in whose worlds the viewer was, literally, lost— in obscuring or eliding information about the edge of the image, set the mind’s eye adrift in a terrible evanescence. A breach had been opened in the possibility of images of the Antarctic—a breach that matched, it seems to me, what had already been long-resident in the imagination.


And so, the tradition in Antarctica is of an art of fidelity, but that desire for verisimilitude bumps up against the impossibility of representation. The desire to represent shifts from a literal to a symbolic, metaphoric or fabulist register. It’s here that we can find the roots of Pierre Huyghe’s 2005 project The Journey That Wasn’t, with its deadpan affect, its spectacularity, and its elusive, slipping narrative. While Huyghe’s research apparently did include some quasi-scientific efforts, including interviews with some ornithologists, still, “he did not,” as one reviewer put it, “hold out a lot of hope.’

Huyghe set out for the Antarctic as guest artist on board a yacht vaguely affiliated with the UN Environmental Program, and sponsored by Agnès B., the high-end French fashion house. His aim was to find an elusive, mythical albino penguin—‘a white animal, never listed.’ The trope of the bird is probably from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which recounts a journey to the South Pole in which the strange people encountered panic at the sight of white—especially the unknown white creature they fish out of the sea. That creature came from the interior utopia of the ‘Hollow Earth,’ access to which was proffered only at the Poles.

Huyghe’s work, like Poe’s ‘a journey that wasn’t,’ involved, in addition to the expedition itself, an installation-performance at the ice skating rink in New York’s Central Park. The rink was turned into a kind of negative image of the expedition landscape, blanketed with black plastic and filled with shiny, black glacier-like rocks made from styrofoam, and flooded with water to make it look something like a sea of black ice. The extravaganza involved a 42 piece orchestra, lighting experts, a special effects crew and three live audiences, and the whole thing was filmed, with the footage eventually being intercut with shots of the initial adventure in the south. The tripartite work, then, consisted of an ‘actual’ experience, an ironic recreation of it, and a fable in the form of a representation of the experience together with the representation of the representation of it, thus suggesting questions about the relation of reality to the fictions that it spawns, about authenticity and recreation, and about what might be lost or gained in these translations—all this, in the process of ‘documenting’ an experience in the Antarctic.

And here it is no longer possible to avoid speaking of Utopian longing in relation to Antarctica—which is, we could say, a very special form of hoax. I think that Huyghe’s piece is playing with this, setting out to accomplish a task that is, essentially, voided and which, moreover, he does not expect to accomplish. The work seems to mock the desire for requital, or transcendence, on which it is built, layer upon layer. First of all, it is not at all certain that he actually saw the penguin, on whom the entire project depends: accounts of the trip make this claim, but in highly mannered and suspect ways. And the involuted form of the work spins it away from the Antarctic, and into an eternal recursion of questions, and questions about questions, and so on. Huyghe’s expedition account calls itself into question, and his (climactically) temperate and aesthetically profligate re-enactment inverts any conceivable truth within it, leading finally to a conflation of the two yarns, wandering further still into the imaginary desert.

There is a second work that I’d like to consider, which is Peter Delpeut’s 1993 film Forbidden Quest: The Unknown Story of the Hollandia South Pole Expedition 1905-1906. As Told by Ship’s Carpenter JC Sullivan.

We have again an instance of cinema—which Godard famously declared to be ‘truth 24 times a second’—as an elaborate and pointed hoax. Delpeut builds his apocryphal tale using vintage expeditionary footage, but in a counterfeit montage of Antarctic and Arctic material, and accompanied by a contemporary voice-over purporting to be otherwise. A haunted narrator, the sole survivor of the fateful trip, spins out a story by turns achingly earnest and whoppingly false: the documentary form of the film becomes the occasion for proving the reality of the Hollow Earth, even though the carpenter knows that our doubts will be strenuous.

The film proceeds in the manner of a travelogue, a first-person narrative that promises an intrinsic reliability: but in fact, the documentary form is fatally at odds with the story that it tells. Things begin normally enough: we embark, rig the sails, grow bored with the tedium of the journey to the fantastic. We come to love the dogs, and to accept the presence of the Picture Man. Soon enough, things spiral out of control: a polar bear is sighted, and shot. The animal is both monster and sacred, its presence on the wrong side of the globe explained by its passage through the hollow center. The killing brings the cataclysm that drives the rest of the story, with its horrific journey into a Hell from which the exit is never specified.

The film, then, also proceeds in the manner of that other hyper-realist tradition in Antarctic narratives, centered on a morbid fascination with expeditions that went terribly wrong. This is, both historically and also in Delpeut, connected to a moral dimension. As Sarah Moss notes, the polar regions “are unearthly places of intense significance, where great moral dramas are enacted with a purity that would be impossible in the inhabited world.” Moss was writing with regard to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it seems clear that, in Delpeut, that same, 200 year old trembling is still twinned to polar strangeness. In fact Delpeut’s film echoes the poem significantly: Coleridge’s Mariner shoots the albatross. He encounters the spirits of the dead, and, like the Carpenter, lives to tell the tale. Meanwhile, Delpeut’s bear is a reversal of the albatross: as a ‘figure of primal innocence,’ the albatross belongs to the Antarctic, while the polar bear signals a distress in any notion of innocence or belonging. We have, then, a stark moral story, but one that has been displaced 90 degrees from its axis of meaning, and in which the sinister subtext has been converted from biblical directive into a hoax that defies the suspension of disbelief.

All of this arrives to our eyes because of the Picture Man, the provenance of the footage: the one who saw. “The picture man came with us,” the carpenter recites. “No one heard him utter a single word, but he made living pictures. We called him the quiet man. Some said he couldn’t speak: that’s why with his eyes he could view and steady all things, even those awful calamities and horrors. He followed us everywhere with that wooden box of his. The silence there can be unbearable: sometimes the only sound we heard was the picture box rattling. He never knew that sound for the balm it was to our ears, but he saw everything about us and locked it up in his pictures.”

The film continually moves back and forth between an insistence on the veracity of its story and the dreamscape in which it unfolds: the film stock is scarred, as often happens to such relics, but it has also been colorized. This lends a rapturous swell to an image bank we had already come to love for its starkness, and the sense of a unified affective space to one we treasure for its apartness. The film—like Huyghe’s, by the way—is stunningly beautiful, and visually saturated with desire, mystery and pathos, and the longing that their presence suggests.

In both of these works, a hoax is the fulcrum that leverages us into Antarctic space. The hoax is based in the strategy of the double: it’s an iteration of the real, a stealth virus that attacks its DNA. The technology and authority of vision is disrupted in each story—for Huyghe there’s a terrific, blinding storm that almost destroys the expedition, and from which the imposter bird eventually appears, and for Delpeut, the visual and the oral strands are fatally disconnected from each other (remember that the Picture Man is mute) and the Carpenter stares, with empty eyes, into his memory. There is no Real, only apprehensions of it: these works are not just describing the impossibility of representation or description, they’re trying to actually enact it.

Earlier I mentioned an ‘implicit social contract of realism,’ drawing on a Platonic idea of the correctness of the gaze, the resembling gaze which matches perception to what should be sighted. This visual ethic is precisely what fuels the missionary school of Antarctic images, from Edward Wilson’s early 20th century watercolors to Al Gore’s powerpoint. What becomes of that contract and ethic, if images are corrupted by falsification, and if they turn out to be much more about themselves as images than about the place that they testify to? In fact, in both of these works the actual, experienced Antarctic is disavowed—Huyghe announces that the journey ‘was not,’ and Delpeut’s story, with its polar bear, negates the one thing that schoolchildren are likely to know about the Antarctic—and they concentrate our attention, instead, on its double—its image. This acute self-consciousness signals, probably most of all, the sense of inevitable breakdown that comes with the task of imaging the Antarctic. After all, Godard was describing not some intrinsic truth content in cinema, but rather its truth claims. The social contract of realism is the narrative equivalent of perspectival rendering: these works, though—these hoaxes—watch themselves watch and somehow tell us, in the process, that the utopian edge of the world is nothing more (or less) than what we can imagine it to be. Whether we actually see it, or not.

There is a historical dimension to all of this too. Huyghe and Delpeut did not simply forsake representationalism in favor of abstraction—which would have been one option for dealing with the problem of representation: they reformulate representation as hoax. We can, probably, only understand their work in relation to what preceded it. They’re distanced from the Antarctic across time: historians of its history, legatees of its earlier images. The choice of the hoax probably also reflects the fact that these artists were working at a time when the heroic paradigm of struggle against savage elements had been replaced with an intensely fearful one about global environmental crisis. Huyghe in particular provides a parable of redemption that is slight, elliptical and self-fulfilling, much like the general public reaction has been to the prospect of climatological disaster. Theirs is a fourth generation take: after the imaginers, the conquerors and the analysts, comes the flood of doubt.

But if vision is not correspondent to ‘reality’ then it might, as Kathryn Yusoff suggests, open the possibility of another kind of vision, ‘that incorporates the fictions and breakdown within those systems of vision and visuality.’ The hoax doubles the initial meaning: it defamiliarizes it, gives it a new direction, generates a question around it. In contrast to the kitsch of literalness, it keeps vision from being arrested, and launches it into a generative—and, distinctly polar— strangeness. The hoax is, potentially, a way to reactivate a frozen imaginary.

Antarctica is a numinous, intensely suggestive landscape, whose despoliation denotes not ‘merely’ environmental, but existential danger. Its unique psychic power is both other-worldly, and harshly real. Antarctic representations boomerang back and forth, between figure and ground, idea and ice, in what seems to be a spiraling dialectic ever struggling to answer the historically produced limits in each of its propositions.

Coleridge’s albatross was ‘the spirit of the place that began at the limits of knowledge.’ Both Huyghe and Delpeut seem to suggest that, despite all that we have learned about the Antarctic, our ways of knowing up ‘til now can trace only—we might say—the tip of the iceberg. Which is why we are, still, making it up.

Rachel Weiss

Rachel Weiss has published extensively on contemporary art in journals, magazines and newspapers in the US, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia. Major publications include Making Art Global: The Tercera Bienal de la Habana (Afterall Books), To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art (University of Minnesota Press) and On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias by Luis Camnitzer (University of Texas Press: editor).

Major curatorial projects include Global Conceptualism 1950s-1980s: Points of Origin (Queens Museum of Art, NYC: co-director with Luis Camnitzer and Jane Farver), Ante América (Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, Bogotá, and traveled in South, North and Central America: co-curator, with Gerardo Mosquera and Carolina Ponce de León), The Nearest Edge of the World: Art and Cuba Now (traveled throughout the US: co-curator with Gerardo Mosquera) and Imagining Antarctica (traveled throughout the US: funded by the National Science Foundation).

As the founding faculty member of the Arts Administration and Policy department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago she has developed interdisciplinary curriculum that focuses on culture, policy, institutions, and their practices.

Guest teaching has included appointments at Goldsmith’s College, Creative Curating Program and the Royal College of Art, Program in Visual Arts Administration: Curating and Commissioning Contemporary Art, both in London; Curtin University, Department of Art in Perth, Western Australia and the China National Academy of Fine Art, Department of Art History in Hangzhou.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.