Christchurch dialogues01

2008-09-01 Christchurch
Chance encounters

Meeting the Murphys
Meeting the Murphys

Landing at Christchurch airport early in the afternoon left me plenty of time to look round. I had lived here in the early 1950s, when my father was setting up radio systems after world war 2. We had a house in the airport grounds.

The old buildings were just as I remembered: stark imposing forms looming against a wide horizon, with distant mountains beyond. Concrete, spread out where once there was earth, felt hard against the soles of my shoes. Treading this surface now, I missed the fine dust that used to catch between my toes. Mostly I we barefoot around here. Swinging my gaze around the present scene, I saw things were placed as I had known them: the water tower that once had a hose trough beside it, where I paddled my feet in the water; the observation tower where my father worked, with the clock still on the outside wall.

But where was our old house? Standing in a carport built over where I had played, I thought about the house where we lived. Cream painted weather boards clad the outside. These were soft and smooth to touch. I remembered drawing lines into the creamy painted wood, imagining the sound of the pencil, marking hard, and then softly, against the surface. It felt quite sensuous, the connection between that surcace and my drawing hand. Taking out my sketchbook and pencil, I drew as I remembered I had drawn then, and as I felt now, being in this place.

The day before leaving for here I had participated with a group in a workshop with Vikki Quill. She had led us through a number of ways to sense Antarctic landscape, based on her own dance-calligraphic practice. One of these ways began with walking, and moving into painting whilst maintaining connection through the body, with the landscape. Walking with eyes closed on the cold concrete floor, I sensed the heat in my feet melting ice beneath me. Maintaining this sense, I held a full brush of ink, imagining its bristles as muscles through my arm. Painting with this feeling, I marked the paper as if into a 3D space. Guided in this way, I fleetingly grasped a sense of how her practice can connect us with landscapes. Hers is a way, through improvised movement, to visually engage in dialogue with landscapes.

Playing at the airport, as I describe it now, my thick drawing pencil took the place of a brush. My very simple marks traced sensations remembered: turning to see the whole horizon, digging through the earth towards the other side, grains of dry soil falling through my fingers.

Turning towards where our old house was, so close to the airport I could easily walk, I saw, unbelievably, another in its place: the International Antarctic Centre. Footprints in blue paint led to the building, foot prints of human walking boots.

As I progressed, a pair of penguin prints suddenly appeared amongst them:

Retracing footprints
Retracing footprints

Looking up I saw a huge wall of penguins, cut-outs of penguins in different positions. To someone who animates, these were irresistible, and I reached for my camera to take a shot. A man and woman then appeared beside me. He asked if I would like a photo of myself against the wall. We got talking. His name was George and his wife was Karen.

It turned out that George had wintered over at McMurdo in 1980-1981, working as an engineer for Operation Deep Freeze. He had worked on setting up systems for accessing fresh water for the base. He was working still as an engineer, doing similar work in California. He was surprised at my interest in his story. He had just returned from visiting the American Antarctic operations people. He had offered them photos from his Antarctic work, and others he described as of more aesthetic interest. But they did not have time to meet him. At this time of year, September, the first voyages for the season prepare to head south. Operations are always complex and demanding, he said, just as they were in his day. So although disappointed, George understood. Survival and science come ahead of art and history.

George began to describe the blue of the ice in Antarctica as the same blue in the sign behind the cut-out penguins. I got a sense that here was someone who connected with Antarctica in some different ways, from both practical and aesthetic perspectives. I asked if he and his wife would agree to a recorded interview, and they said yes. So, standing in the wind before the wall of penguins, this is how our conversation went:

L. Do you think going to Antarctica had changed you in some way?

G. I think it did. It gave me more strength, and to believe in mother nature. That science and nature are clues to the pieces that we need to put together as a civilization, and politics. It was a bringing together of everything. That was what was so great about it. People from China were down there, the Japanese were down there, the New Zealanders, the Australian people were down there. We had 80 people that wintered over and we all had to join together and each one of us was like part of a body, and you can’t do without the other part…everybody joined together and kept together. It was scary because when we wintered over it was complete darkness for 4 months. With that, and what happened to people if they isolate you or something like that, you can almost go crazy. And so everybody had to keep together to keep other people happy. My father died down there and they joined together,. The New Zealanders let us have one of the dog sled dogs . They said that it had a problem and that it had to stay indoors. But now that I’ve thought about it for 30 years it’s more than apparent that they let us have Jules (?) so that I could have a dog up in the place where I was at. And just so unbelievable people and everything else.

L. Are you hopefull for the future of humans?

G. I think that whatever disease, whatever calamity bestows on the world, which it will, you know, we’ll have asteroids, we’lll have different things… it will hopefully be something that will join us together. I think that slowly but surely we’re learning that war isn’t the way and more and more people, on the internet. The greaat things about down there was just being able to communicate. And that was one thing, I think there’s an awakening now, with the people, the culture, with the internet now, we’re showing, we’re seeing things around the world and that’s why I’m here, back here, it’s now you’re a couple of days trip and you’re in another part of the world. We can do that. Yes, I have faaith that with the scientists and with the people’s belief there’s enough underlying culture of people that understand, that artists go down…

K. It’s a universal language, like people love music, for instance. It’s just innate in all people in all cultures I think.

L. Can I ask you how you imagine Antarctica?

K. Oh, I actually really think of it as a stabilizing constant centre, just like a dancer spinning, moving, keeping a constant sense of direction, and I like to imagine Antarctica as the world’s centre. I think it’s constant.

G. Antarctica taught me that there’s much that we don’t know about life. It brought our most sophisticated equipment and most sophisticated means down to not even a baby’s crawl. It’s hard to describe because it’s …you feel so primitive when you’re down there. You have the most sophisticated equipment available to all of mankind, yet down there, nothing really matters. It”s , you’re brought down to the bare elements of survival. It’s unbelievable. You have gear that can keep you warm but it can’t keep you warm enough to work down there. You have vision but you can’t see when the elements decide that a herbie (?) comes up. They have the wind storms. the snow is like powder. You can’t even make a snow ball down there. As soon as the wind comes up, a wind like this is about a 3 mile and hour gust and would cause almost a complete whiteout. You wouldn’t be able to see anything. It’s just amazing how…nature…We don’t know anything about nature. We know more about the stars than we do about our own planet right now. Antarctica is so unknown, so difficult to access.

G. One of the collectors they used down there, one of my friends went to Brown university, and they did the solar radaition, is what they did. There’s a magnetic field that goes around the world, and it’s just like a battery, or a magnet, and there’s a positive and negative side, and the antarctic’s on the negative side and so all the ionised particles that go out into the ionisphere and out into the space side of the earth gets pulled back into the southern hemisphere. So the positive is pushing out particles and the negative is pulling them in.

K. So it changed the chemicals in his brain [laughs].

G. You never know.

K. So I’ve been trying to persuade him to go up to the Arctic to balance out.

G. [laughing] I might just go back to the opposite and disappear.

Pondering this idea, I imagined the possibility of a balanced world, and balanced humans.

The time had come to go. As we parted George gave me a picture of himself taken at McMurdo in 1980. It showed a thinner younger man with arms crossed and tatooed. Rolling up a sleave, George showed me a snake burned still on his arm. Balanced on its coiled tail, its forked tonue was poised to attack, or perhaps to defend. I pondered how going to Antarctica had changed this man, and what he was like before going there. I remember hearing that the snake is a symbol, readid diferently in different cultures. George had experienced a place where cultures came together. I walked away from this meeting uplifted, with only good thoughts of the snake.

The time had come for me to visit the Antarctic Centre before it closed for the day. In a room simulating the icy landscape, including a hurricane, I played with my camera and sound recorder. I photographed double shadows that were cast of me on the ice, and recorded the sound of my feet walking, crunching on the cold surface. I felt the cold against my skin, at -8 degrees. I made another drawing, or trace, of my sense of moving through there.

As a researcher I am hunting, seeking ways we can know Antarctica. I am hunting through memories and senses, my own and other people’s. I am hunting through conversations I have with people and landscapes.

Reading Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez, I find connections with what he writes and the different landscapes I am moving through:

Hunting in my experience – and by hunting I simply mean being out on the land – is a state of mind. All of one’s faculties are brought to bear in an effort to become fully incorporated into the landscape…It is more an analysis of what one senses. To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing. To engage in a wordless dialogue with it, one so absorbing that you cease to talk with your human companions. It means to release yourself from rational images of what something “means”and to be concerned only with what “is.” And then to recognize that things exist only insofar as they can be related to other things…9p.199-200)

Lopez continues with a discussion about the separation that most of us have made between our selves and the world that other animals occupy, drawing a distinction between our culture and Eskimo culture:

We have turned all animals and elements of the natural world into objects. We manipulate them to serve the complicated ends of our destiny. Eskimos do not grasp this separation easily, and have difficulty imagining themselves entirely removed from the world of animals. For many of them, to make this separation is analagous to cutting one’s self off from ligt or water. It is hard to imagine how to do it. (p.200)

There was something about the way George described his experience of the physical, social and psychological landscapes of Antarctica that accords with what Lopez says. I find it difficult to imagine the depth of connections some have made to Antarctica because I have not needed to survive a whole year there. I can appreciate how enduring such an experience can change a person.

Lopez reminds us that through examining our own metaphorical connections with unfamiliar landscapes, we can reach some understanding of ourselves. But in this act of seeing connection, he warns, we risk attaching more meaning to the metaphors than to the land itself. In suggesting that the landscape is at work on our sense of connection with it, rather than the other way round, he offers a non-homocentric view for consideration. His way of expressing the dialogues possible between ourselves and landscapes honours land as that which hold us, of which we are a part. The implication here is that in understanding landscape we can come to know our selves:

…we bring our own worlds to bear in foreign landscapes in order to clarify them for ourselves. It is hard to imagine that we could do otherwise. The risk we take is of finding our final authority in in the metaphors rather than in the land. To inquire into the intricacies of a distant landscape, then, is to provoke thughts about one’s own interior landscape, and the familiar landscapes of memory. The land urges us to come around to an understanding of ourselves. (p. 247)


Karen Murphy says:

Subject: Hello from California
Date: Fri, 24 Oct 2008 10:33:01 -0700

Hello Lisa,

Glad to hear from you! We got online and read the interview. Your site is beautiful and inspirational ~ an ongoing work of art. How fun to see ourselves in print! We truly enjoyed meeting you, and hope this finds you well.

Wasn’t our meeting serendipitous? George’s heart was brimming over, being back at the ‘gateway’ to the biggest adventure of his life, and there you were, reliving your steps, back at your ‘gateway’, your childhood home! I feel I witnessed a destiny moment, as life doesn’t always obviously overlap so.

We proceeded to travel up the coast and enjoyed a great Holiday of exploring, learning, and sightseeing. We stopped in the Antarctic exhibit in Auckland the morning of flying out, and found it to be really enjoyable. When we return to Christchurch we will visit the Antarctica Center, where we
met you, not just hang out in the parking lot! I was thinking that George and I should try to plan a return visit during the Annual Antarctic Festivals at the end of September. We were in Christchurch a month early, unaware of its existence! Should you ever hear of an American event about Antarctica, please try to notify us about it. We had a stop over back in Sydney, I love the City! I now have a burning desire to explore Australia.

I feel so lucky to have taken this trip; it deeply moved me, it was one of the best travels of my life. In fact, we started looking into moving and working in New Zealand for a year or two.

So new friend, any plans to visit California? If ever you do come this way, we must meet again! George has been extremely busy catching up with his work, putting in long hours (as I type), he sends his best regards, and will be sending you pics when life slows down for him. George wasn’t able to open
up the files that you sent us – I do want to see the pic of you he took, hopefully he will figure it out soon…

I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but I believe I envisioned the airport through your eyes as you described how it was for you, when you where growing up, right there at the Center. I felt very connected to the land. The vision that I saw, it was precious. I was heightened by just setting foot down for the first time on a different continental plate, so the past present and future were overlapping for me. Some of us don’t need to experience a place or time; we just need to be open, to land or people of the land. That is what your site reinforces for me. May our paths cross again soon ~ Karen Murphy

How lovely to hear from you Karen! The day I received this, something went wrong with my internet service, and I could not respond to your message. It kept bouncing, so I gave up on your address. So, to hear from you again (below) is wonderful!