A Country Of The Mind - notes for an exhibition of Art exploring Polar Landscapes.
What follows here is a piece of contextual writing for an upcoming show at Twenty Twenty Gallery in Ludlow, opening on Saturday 2nd February, 2019.
When I was seven years old I did a school project on Australia. I wrote to Australia House and received a ton of maps and pamphlets which I cut up and stuck in a book with captions and bits of writing. With all it's gigantic out-there-ness, koala bears, gum trees and emus, I thought it must have a wonderful place. But the thing which attracted me the most, was the roadside barbecue. In every lay-by, even in the middle of nowhere, you could park up and enjoy a delicious barbecue! At that time in my life, I don't think I had ever been to a barbecue. I loved the idea that wherever you were driving to, in the middle of nowhere (which was also an idea I liked the sound of very much), you could pull over and have a barbecue. Oh most exotic of pleasures! Perhaps that is just the way the mind of a child works; well this one at least. Years later, I would be walking up mountains, with groups of bedraggled and straggling teenagers, my son included, encouraging them with a promise of a McDonalds at the top, or maybe just over the next ridge. The usual response was "Really??", half wishful and half disbelieving. Perhaps in the middle of nowhere there is an actual barbecue or fast food restaurant? Like Douglas Adam's famed "Restaurant At The End Of The Universe"? There is a cafe at the top of Snowden and bases at McMurdo, Rothera and the South Pole are reputed to be relatively comfortable. Then of course there is Scott's hut, which was at least more luxurious than the upturned boat, under which Shackleton's men successfully sheltered whilst awaiting extraction from Elephant Islan
I haven't stopped dreaming about places in the middle of nowhere, just as I am sure those marooned men of Shackleton's crew dreamed of home. But the first pictures of what I thought was "the North", did not happen until my fifth decade. I had read Barry Lopez's "Arctic Dreams" some thirty years earlier in my twenties, and I had been to Canada, walked in the Rockies and seen the Northern Lights. Yet the remote north of the fjords and ice remained as mysterious to me as Terra Incognita might have once been to explorers of bygone ages.
Working phenomenologically, i.e. making it up as I went along, I found myself painting blue abstracts and scenes that I named after places I had heard of in the shipping forecast. At that time, my main inspiration was the sky and the weather in the place where I lived. High up on a ridge with views for miles in any direction. But I knew better than to pastiche the skies I was looking at. Nature is too fierce a competitor and too royal to be treated thus. There was something else that needed to be attained or crystallised if I was to create work that expressed my longing for its perceived majesty.
I think musicians, like Grieg, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Gubaidulina or Tveitt, would have known this and expressed it beautifully in the abstraction of their music. In the world of visual art, however, it is not that simple. Photography works, but painting is much harder. In either case, a deductive approach always leads to something less than the thing imagined.
Back to the subject of my own Arctic Dreams, I knew that somewhere in that idea was a place I longed for. It felt like a place of solace as much as it was also perhaps a sign for heartbreak, or at least, longing stretched to breaking point. So came from me, these pictures of somewhere else. Maybe somewhere I had been in my dreams, or a lost memory, or something invented. I didn't know, neither did I care to explain. I enjoyed not knowing. As the picture unfolded, it explained itself, and my job was simply to explore, divine and amplify. Of course, it came from me, but this feeling of something 'other' emerging, as if it came from somewhere else, at once dignified and justified the process. It felt like its own process of discovery.
My first painting of a fjord won the RWS Exhibitions Award, and I joked with my friend Malcolm Ashman when he won a similar award with a painting of the same name at the following annual RWS exhibition a year later. How amusing it was that his abstracted piece should come out of his direct experience of Norway, a place I had, hitherto, not visited!
The story continues in that after exhibiting a couple more of these paintings with the RSMA, I received an email circular concerning a residency in Antarctica with the Friends of The Scott Polar Research Institute. I looked at it, and said, "I am going to do that". I applied and I was offered the chance to go . I can't say I was surprised, but nevertheless, I did drive over to Cambridge to visit the SPRI just to make sure that it was not a hoax! I can report that I was reassured: "No, we are definitely sending you to Antarctica".
And so, events took their turn; from making these pictures ex nihilo, I found myself being invited, by the Friends of The Scott Polar Research Institute, to visit and expand my work from actual experience of these hitherto imagined places. For this artist, it would seem, reality begins in the mind and imagination. Since then, I have met other artists on the FoSPRI programme, including Shelley Perkins, Nick Romeril and Julian Grater, amongst others. I am humbled to be in their company.
As if all this were not sufficient repayment for the imagining of a far away landscape, my wife, Celia, and I were recently married, with minimal planning, on a trip to Greenland thanks to a short notice opportunity that came to us via the unexpected offices and undeserved friendship of the famous polar explorer, David Hempleman-Adams.
This was a trip I had been musing about for years, but never expected to actually materialise. Apart from the odd trip over the Severn Bridge, I had, until recently, visited fewer countries than I have fingers on my left hand! Travel was all about a country imagined, read about, or dreamed of. That didn't make it any less potent, but it is different from the experience one has when actually visiting a place. I listened recently to Geoff Dyer talking on the Radio 4 about what he called 'literary pilgrimages'. His point was that such places could actually be quite disappointing and that the arrival was an experience of disillusionment. I think that is an experience shared by many travellers to far places. Hence, perhaps, the names given to such places as "Derelict Junction" at McMurdo, Deception Island, or Exasperation Inlet. And yet, paradoxically, these are places that conjure romance as much as they signify hardship, madness or disappointment. Such is love, is life, and so it would seem, exploration of remote icy places. I have imagined and painted some of these places. Perhaps in my life I have experienced some of these feelings too, in romances ending in disappointments, or in ambitions unfulfilled or projects or ideals abandoned. Always, the longing for home is a consistent and persistent theme in all these travels. Far away and close to, these places are a nest or a barren waste. Whatever else they are, they provide a context for the life and journey of the heart. Heartless, wasteland, deserted islands. The human explorer is compelled to experience them all, because he compulsively acquisitive, curious and restless. Why else would he leave home unless compelled to do so by some darker, romantic drive?
The urge to travel, for Scott and the RGS, even Shackleton or Mallory, was tainted by images of a noble, fragmenting Empire, an escape from the ennui of home, and the call to something 'other', which thereby conferred a sense of significance upon the journey and the traveller. It was worth pitting oneself against a foe such as nature, for the sake of these things. And so, Cook and Franklin, Barents and Magellan all travelled, with more or less equal portions of hope and despair.
And so it was when I returned from Greenland last summer, with a few sketches and over 3500 photographs. How do I begin to make images of what I have seen? The country of the mind is not the same as the observed world.
Speaking with Nick Jones, another Polar artist featured in the Twenty-Twenty exhibition, who recently visited the shores of Baffin Island, he said he did not think he would make any sketches whilst he was away, but preferred to look, and experience directly without the impedance of a tertiary agent, like a sketchbook. And so he keeps his romance alive and his paintings remain beautifully expressive in their evocation of this 'other' place. The following image is one of beautiful Nick's paintings. "Cape Hope".
Since being awarded the FoSPRI Antarctic Residency, I have traveled to Greenland and am shortly to visit Norway. If you had said to me twelve months ago that I would shortly be visiting both polar regions as a result of made up images inspired by books and the shipping forecast, I would have scarcely believed you. But here it is. A mixture of made up and observed landscapes.
Unlike our predecessor explorers, we have new and different reasons for extending our experience of the poles. Our planet is changing fast, and our own mortality, as a species, is coming fast to the fore as an issue for clear consideration. The polar landscape is changing fast. What will man lose, if, or indeed, when, the ice melts away completely? Perhaps then it really will become a country of the mind, and all we will be able to do is dream about it, just as we now dream of woolly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers. We know for sure that these places will not be there, as they are now, for future generations, unless by some miracle, we get our collective proverbial in gear and halt, or at least slow the
process which has created the climate change catastrophe which we now face. Already, vast sheets which have taken billions of years to form, have slipped away in a matter of just a few decades. With each season, huge ancient glaciers are marching in reverse to their source.
The images such as those showing at Twenty Twenty Gallery from 2nd February 2019, along with those being made by other contemporary artists and photographers elsewhere across the planet, may soon be all that we have left of such places.