A curator’s view of the exhibition

Terah Walkup, fine art curator for Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives, writes:

Naomi Hart is the Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence at The University of Sheffield Department of Geography for 2017-2018. Hart spent August of 2017 in Svalbard, Norway in the field with students and faculty from the Polar and Alpine Change Masters programme. This body of work comes from her observations of scientific method and enquiry there and investigates the, often opposing, man-made interventions present in the ice fields of the High Arctic.

In the early 20th century, coal mining became the dominant industry of Svalbard. Recent years, however, have seen both the closing of the mines and their structural demise, due in part to heavy snow melt, one of the increasingly visible effects of global warming. Svalbard, because of its polar location, has become a site of scientific interest wherein researchers measure atmospheric and environmental changes. A landmass once mined for energy is now mined for data and information. Furthermore the drastic change in landscape from melting permafrost has prompted new explorations for making unprecedented use of natural resources, such as investigating whether edible plants can be grown in a land never before cultivated. Taking mass balance—the notion that energy and matter can neither be created nor destroyed—as her premise, Hart explores the cyclical (and conflicting?) nature of the Arctic landscape.

Hart belongs to a long tradition of artists accompanying scientific missions. James Cook and Charles Darwin enlisted artists to record human encounters, biological specimens and newly charted landscapes on their journeys of exploration. However, Hart turns her eye toward the process of enquiry, the experience of researchers and students in the field and records the indexes of human action in the landscape. Hauntingly opaque human figures, whose indistinct forms recall the first photographs of Arctic explorers, give the viewer a foothold into potential narratives but resist the clarity desired by final conclusions. Likewise her use of found text, ranging from academic publications and poetry to journalistic observations by researchers, provides a glimpse of the written experience of the Arctic. Yet her fragmentation of those texts, in their burial, concealment, and decontextualisation, mirrors the abstracted data researchers must inventively extract and interpret in the field.

Like the early Arctic explorers and contemporary scientists, the viewer encounters fleeting glimpses of clues of what has been experienced both in and by the landscape. Tools used for measuring, the remains of a collapsed coal mine, decaying animal skeletons, new and abandoned architecture echo throughout the series as slowly revealed or fading to the point of disappearing. Her use of form and colour make manifest the deeper tensions from opposing forces: cold/heat, protection/danger, conservation/consumption, decay/growth. Materials directly reference their subject: the carbon cycle is represented by using the very coal mined on the outskirts of Sheffield, cryoconite collected by researchers and paint thinned by glacier water from the Arctic. Hart’s investigation of how the invisible is made visible offers a timely response to the impact of current geopolitical interests on the ice fields of the Arctic.

Exhibition

Launch. Photo: Carl Whitham, Portland Works Studio

Well, that was a week!  Despite all the odds, and the worst the Arctic weather could throw at us, ice report launched on Thursday 1st March.  A massive ‘Thank you’ to everyone who helped, and to everyone who braved the blizzards and snowdrifts to come.  Special thanks to Carl Whitham of Portland Works Studio for the amazing photos (and to everyone who wore colour co-ordinated clothing, by accident or design).  See the images in the Gallery.

Competition:Collaboration

Watching and listening to my colleagues over the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on the fine balance between competition and collaboration that everyone has to tread. There is a hugely generous spirit of sharing information in science in order to further knowledge, but it is tempered by the feeling of ‘wanting to be the first to find something out’. I asked some of the ice scientists to tell me why they do what they do. I’m an artist because it actually helps to keep me sane – I find myself sinking into depression if I don’t make or draw for a while. The answers the scientists gave were varied, but some of them struck a chord: ‘I like to feel useful’, ‘Passing on knowledge’, and ‘Being the first to know things … until I publish this knowledge is all mine.’

This tension has much larger ramifications, of course – getting the credit for discovering something is likely to mean you get funding to search for more stuff. However community-minded we may feel, there is always the need for self-preservation, and, like in the arts, with funding hard to come by, this can mean the difference between success or failure; getting a job, or not getting a job.

Similarly, as with arts funding, there is a requirement somehow to know what it is you are going to find out before you find it. Grant applications demand what the results are going to be and why this will be useful. I’m sure this hasn’t changed in hundreds of years – European exploration and mapping of the Arctic was almost entirely funded by nations wanting to find the elusive ‘North West Passage’ (that the Inuit had been travelling across overland for thousands of years), so ships went off in search of it, but often sidetracked to look for things their captains considered more ‘interesting’ while they were at it.

As Lieutenant George De Long, captain of the ‘USS Jeannette’ said in 1879

“It is an impossible thing – for one starting out on an expedition of this kind to say in advance what he is ‘going to do.’ … we go out into a great blank space. If you will be kind enough to keep us in memory while we are gone, we will attempt to tell you ‘what we have done’ on our return, which, I dare say, will be more interesting”

What I have realised is that I nearly always work in collaboration, though my collaborators may be unwitting, (‘No man is an island’, etc etc). I have music on a lot while working – usually classical, often wordless, though I am trying to expand my horizons. I also read voraciously when I get time, and have real and online conversations with friends, which often spark ideas or further trains of thought. Selfishly, I often forget just how much it can mean for someone to say that your work is inspiring, so here is a list (ever increasing and in no particular order) of what has influenced me over the last few months:  

‘Arctic Dreams’ by Barry Lopez

‘Icebergs – Their science and links to Global Change’ by Grant R Bigg

Peter Doig

‘This Cold Heaven’ by Gretel Ehrlich

Hildur Guðnadóttir

Alexander Bayon

Al Swainger

‘Cantus Arcticus’ by Rautavaara

Cosmic miniature worlds

Image: Dr Harry Langford

Have just spent an hour and a half with the brilliant and generous Dr Harry Langford looking at digital images of cryoconites in the lab. His patience is incredible as I try to retrieve biology and chemistry from the recesses of my teenage brain. Showing me different kinds of photo-imaging and explaining methods of preparing and viewing microscope slides, we look at the cosmic miniature worlds of cyanobacteria, algae, snow algae, diatoms (two cells) and the dyed blue, flourescing green and blood red of the cells, silica and strands. Again the two opposing colours of bluegreen and redorange dance on the screen. Like veins or the creases in a bolt of material crushed and released.

The cryoconites are symbiotic colonies of cyanobacteria, algae, fungal matter and the particles of soot and rock they take in and feed off. They can survive the winter and flourish in the summer ice.

 

Ghosts

How the strangest things can get ideas started. A friend sends a link to a ghost story. I get about a tenth of the way through, and the images it conjures up send me looking up encaustic and wax and going back into the ideas of fragments of images buried in semi-opaque whiteness. Before long I’m hunting down candles in the house and melting them into ice-cube trays, pondering on the carbon smoke that the candle spits out and constructing plywood shelters in my head.

Wax tablets. Runes. Documentation.

Laboratory life

Met lovely people last night who had been to my lecture and wanted to chat more about it. Again, as so often, strangely remarkable links in our histories – Africa came up a lot.

They had suggested my comments about ‘scientists as performance artists’ reminded them of Bruno Latour, who I didn’t know, so then I had to get some books out of the library … ‘Laboratory Life’ and ‘Pandora’s Hope’ – anthropologists who study scientists as a ‘tribe’, looking at how they work and what they are like as people. I am fascinated by this. The effort that (for example) ice scientists go to to get their data – a lot is now done by sitting in front of a computer downloading satellite information, but much still has to be done by travelling thousands of miles, hiking for days, camping in adverse and sometimes dangerous conditions, in order to measure a stick, or collect a small bottle of water.

From these collected items, some numbers will be derived and these will turn into a long paper, stuffed with words from what is another language, or at least a dialect (it would be interesting to clarify this) and this, ultimately, and if anybody reads it, may turn into government or global policy on life. Perhaps almost as amazingly, there is so much that is missed, or not included, or which doesn’t clarify a theory or which nobody ever reads which doesn’t go on to make global policy.

Just as much great literature or art is never seen, which might have helped us understand something about love, or war, or the human condition. Lost, or merely hidden to be uncovered some other time. Buried, to be mined and perhaps treasured in another generation.