Antarctic iconography

Stephen Eastaugh, Man out of phase (2003)

A pristine Antarctica has become an icon of a healthy Earth. And yet there are resources in Antarctica that have been exploited since it was first sighted. Antarctic animals that range in size between the whale and krill are harvested for human consumption. Oil beneath the ice  will be available if technology is developed to  access  it. Some Antarctic scientists have expressed concern about climate change caused by human behaviour.  Artists give voice to  concerns expressed by scientists in ways that scientists cannot.

At the recent Australian National Folk Festival in Canberra (April 2010), a band of young musicians, The Lurkers, sang:

I’m an oil cowboy, I come from Texas

Digging oil from the dirt and now I’ve run out of gas

I’m an oil cowboy, I’m heading down

To icy Antarctica to dig more oil from the ground

I’m a wealthy man but I want it, want it

I’m a wealthy man but I need more

They say the world is changing, but I don’t care

Going to shoot the moon and live up there

Circular images of Antarctica and the moon are simple and easy to remember. As children many of us dug holes in the dirt and wore cowboy hats. Greed, or oppression imposed by the greedy, are feelings that many of us know.

The Lurkers performed in Copenhagen during the climate change summit (October 2010). They used words, music and dance to report on what they understand is not happening towards action to reverse global warming. They offer the blue sky (or a memory of it) as the next icon of a healthy Earth:

When I woke up this morning the sky was milky white

Thought that old St Peter’s gate was finally within sight

Then I heard the sulphur cannons firing into the air

Turning ultra-violet rays back to the ether

You know it’s true, they’re gonna try it on you

You know it’s true, they’re gonna try it on you

A white sky may be an icon of humanity’s delusion of omnipotence over Earth. Such a sky may even further reduce human perception. Imagine feeling enclosed, shrouded, and separated from any sense of my place in space.

Like the animations in this project, songs composed by The Lurkers are freely available online, and are

released under a Creative Commons Licence, which means you are free to use our songs for non-commercial use. You can add to or adapt our songs, but only if you distribute them under a similar licence and don’t make money off them (Cubby, Martin et al., 2010, p. 15).

Artists who share their material to voice concerns about climate change may have a greater impact on the public. Judging from the number of young musicians who attended and applauded The Lurkers’ Canberra performances, their words (and their icons) are likely to be adapted and re-used. Speaking between performances, Lurker member, Mithra Cox, explained that they regularly meet with other artists to share ideas about songs as they compose them. Songs that emerge from individuals may progress to reflect the feelings of peers. Perhaps these ways of sharing ideas (online and in workshops) will progress to further an iconography of climate change.

Antarctica has provided a focus for the emergence of a climate change iconography. Icons have begun to emerge in the works of individual artists, some of whom have progressed to reflect ideas shared by others. This progression occurred in the art of Stephen Eastaugh, between his cataloguing of man-made structures at Casey to his development of the Antarctic sculpture garden at Davis. Eastaugh recently returned from Mawson, where he worked for a year as an artist. He reflects (Eastaugh, 2010),

How to describe this winter-over experience? It is not easy to sum up one whole year anywhere but I shall try. I can say that this year has been more a charm than a hex and definitely a long, stupefying intense spell that has been extremely demanding but extraordinarily worthwhile. Experiences are often rather rich on the Ice. Captain Scott in 1911 wrote in his final diary- ‘Great God! This is an awful place.’ I understand his dire predicament 98 years ago but today the icecap is dotted with experienced people armed with technology and Antarctica seems not so awful but it certainly does generate an abundance of awe. Over the next few years I shall attempt to display bits of that awe.

Although Eastaugh typically exhibits solo, his iconography is drawn from the many countries where he has worked. His Antarctic icons, such as his recent Nunatack studies 1 (2009) (Figure [fig:Stephen-Eastaugh,-Nunatak]), contribute an elemental sense of awe to a global iconography that identifies human presence on Earth. The elemental structure in this work relates to ancient monoliths that can be found in may places.