“… Remember this: I am not/written in stone/But in time…/You carry fear with you everywhere/Like a tiny god/In its box of shadows …”
One fragment of one of the many poems that are just part of UnitedVisualArtists’ installation at the National Maritime Museum, High Arctic. The exhibit/installation is in the basement gallery of the new wing, and costs £6 to enter. (The main museum is free.) It’s six quid well spent, though I wish it allowed multiple entry.
The piece has its origins in UVA’s creative director Matt Clark’s trip last year on the schooner Cape Farewell to the Arctic Circle, a trip organised to bring together scientists and artists to document and capture the effects of climate change as the polar ice recedes.
You enter clutching the UV torch given to you at the entrance. It is is dark though light falls in mysterious patterns, at first unpredictable, across squares on the floor. Around you are multiple columns, clustered like a miniature Manhattan skyline, made in an anonymous, sheeny grey. The UV torch beam picks out letters on their flat tops. They spell out tongue-twisting, unpronounceable words, each one the name of a glacier. The big squares have flowing patterns of light, some of which change or disappear or are revealed as you point the torch across them. Scattered between the clusters of glacial tomb-stones are benches; as you stop you realise there are small speakers at each side.
The hall rustles with voices. Some are strong, and can be heard from one end to the other. The poem of which the above is a fragment is one such. Others are read only through one pair of speakers, and you must circle the installation, sitting on one bench after the other to try and capture them all.
Each is the voice of one part of the story of the Arctic. A cabin boy sent to the desolate shore of Spitzbergen in 1610. An ice core sample. Pytheas the Greek. It is hard to capture them all. I spent nearly an hour in there and came out reeling. I would like to go back several times and take it in little doses, come slowly to understand the scale of the vision of catastrophe that Clark and UVA have tried to put together.
The only criticism I have is that it is never silent. The poems speak of the silence of the far North. Glaciers are never silent; they creak and groan with movement. The wind whispers or shouts. Even so, the Arctic desert is a great hush. To sit in that strange and eerie space in silence would be extraordinary.
The installation leaves you dizzy and sad and exhilarated. You come out slightly surprised at the mundane cold of the October afternoon in London, that the Museum itself is as it was when you descended. The angularity of the columns beside the fluidity of the light patterns and the changing volume of voices is profoundly disorienting. It is a detailed and complex evocation of the detailed and complex record of the dying Arctic, the seas and life that may be released by those changes, the reserves (if that is the right word) of palladium, gold, diamonds that are becoming accessible. High Arctic is an elegy, of course, as all such pieces are, and inevitably judgemental in its prediction of ‘severe, imminent’ decline.
In many ways, it leaves you hopeless in the face of the scale of change, and the background knowledge of resource rapacity that will only speed the disasters ahead for the polar bears, the arctic fox and the peoples of the North. Yet it is also strangely exhilarating, in the way of such challenging work, to see that some artists refuse to succumb to simple sound bites and short stories. This is a long, hard work of creation, and for that I am grateful.