How can we know Antarctica?

The changing nature of Antarctica can be sensed moment by moment, or analysed from data trapped in its ice over eons. Swept off your feet by a katabatic, or disorientated in a whiteout, you come to know the fickle nature of its weather. Images of such changes sensed physically in the landscape have been captured with the immediacy of film. Not so easy to know are the records of climate change captured in its ice. Antarctic icemelt accelerates with our burning of fossil fuels. Just as we unearth them, these archives of our past and future melt.

Our landscapes are the internal and external spaces that we shape and are shaped by. Changing how we think and physically impact on our landscapes is a necessary evolutionary process to embrace if we are to survive. Embracing the creative process of evolutionary change with the landscape can be a source of joy. Working against the natural world of which we are a part is self-destructive.

The challenge for artists writing theses is that the thesis form is essentially linear. Visual art is spatially layered. Animation, the visual language of change, is also time-based. Sending me his paper for comment, a colleague puts me to shame. We are both artist-researchers who are preparing presentations for the Imaging Antarctica conference in Christchurch this September. Despite having submitted an Abstract, I have only made jottings for writing the paper. The Abstract, and this Log, seem to me just a lot of writing about writing. The formality of papers and theses scares me. It is not how I am used to doing things. Writing this Log is a way of creeping up on myself. Through practice I might find clear lines of thought. I write and re-write. I get picky about the words I use and play around with the structure of my paragraphs. Am I stalling? Am I progressing? Am I simply self-indulging? I like to play with words, just as I like to play with lines when drawing and animating. I like how my thoughts can find form through both. But the visual thoughts are different from written thoughts. They happen in different physical environments and occupy different part of my mind. I continue to feel I should be writing when I am art-making, and that I should be making art when I am writing. I play tricks on myself, doing what I think I should not be doing, being obstreperous. I used to love wagging school when I was a teenager, and spending my time studying so I would do really well despite school. I find myself doing a bit of that now, writing when I should be preparing some artwork for an event tomorrow. Over-preparing and leaving things to the last minute, I must like living a little on the edge of things. Contrary and fickle, I feel like Antarctic weather, where I recognized a friend in that landscape.

Reading my colleague’s paper today inspired me to write about writing. I recognised his struggle with the formal structure. We are both going to Christchurch to talk about Antarctica from our different points of view. He and I will speak and write and screen our artwork. We need to integrate our art and words to show our lines of thought.

Experiencing Antarctica, I became completely uninterested in perpetuating the sublime landscape image of Antarctica. That is a past image, reflecting colonial values that are dangerous to perpetuate. Perpetuating the sublime image separates us from any real connection with Antarctica, and from our very real responsibility for the changes that are happening there. It relegates the ice and all it knows into the back blocks of our brains, confusing facts with nostalgia. It may seem smug to say, “You had to be there.” But do you? Can being fully where you are, in your body in your own landscapes do the trick?

Standing on Antarctic land, my concerns for climate change transformed. They became grounded in the ice, and in the bedrock emerging from its melting. Standing there, I knew my connection with Antarctic in my bones. Moving over ice and rock, while listening to the words of the scientists working there, I connected with the changes happening there. My connection with Antarctica is in my body through that rock, once joined to my home land, Australia. It is also in the ice that holds our story, and our story is melting. That story goes right back to when we were physically joined – Australia and Antarctica – to before there were humans on earth. Like the stories erased through Colonial ethnic cleansing, our exploitation of the landscape is erasing the global story. Accelerating icemelt through our actions is, as Peter Charuck (2007) says, like burning the worlds most valuable library before we read the books. David Buckland’s Cold Library of Ice (2005) alludes to a similar thought. We run out of the time, as we burn our fuel, to hear the Loquacious Ice (LR 2007).

Polar icecap melting is part of the natural cycle of earth change. What we are doing is creating an aberration to the natural rhythm of change. Human impact on our landscapes is accelerating that change in a way that even the scientists do not understand. This is frightening.

That I fell in love in Antarctica is something I have not written about. Now I see it as the elephant in my living room that demands my attention. Like all metaphors, the elephant is not perfect. My partner is not large and does not demand attention. He and I are planning another walking trip through another part of Australia. We will walk from the extreme south west of Australia and north along the coast. We will camp in a tent pitched into the group along the way. He will tell me what he knows about the landscape. In his scientific, analytical way he will explain how we will survive there. Having walked through Australia throughout his whole life, he knows how the land works. He knows where best to pitch camp, what water is drinkable, and where the snakes might be. He knows a little bit about what native plants are edible. He is not Aboriginal, but he has a powerful connection with Australian land. He knows the connections between the changes happening in antarctic landscape, and here in Australia. But his knowing and my knowing are worlds apart. We understand in very different ways. He analyses everything. At home, he spends a great deal of time reading academic papers.

Do we need to be scientists to understand climate change? Do we need to set foot on Antarctica to know our connections with its changes? Do we need to go there to understand connections between changes happening there are in our own landscapes? Does it help to understand if we can feel our own connection with our own landscapes? These are some questions I grapple with.

The fact of earth changes are held in ice. Just as layers of ice hold the passage of time, my passage of thought must be clear. Words and art can shape our connections with climate change. To affect the changes needed to reverse environmental damage we have caused, we need to know our connections. Words of logic and art of metaphor can work together to make these.

It is very encouraging to find connections with other artists similarly concerned with climate change. My colleague is similarly uninterested in perpetuating the sublime landscape image of Antarctica. This is validating of my own work, and inspires me onwards. We are working on the same concerns form our different points of view, grounded in the glacial ice.