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Dispatches from our Man at the Antarctic Biennale: icebergs ahoy

by Adrian Dannatt  |  09.04.2017
Dispatches from our Man at the Antarctic Biennale: icebergs ahoy
Adrian Dannatt in the Antarctic (Image: Pia Marocco)
Monday 20th March: Only the breakfast tannoy announcement tells you day and date otherwise nobody would have any idea. Absolutely no sense of time in this eerie vacuum outside of reality. Sea looked just the same as all of yesterday, thick mist completely around us, even the deck almost disappeared. This is extremely rare, to travel for more than 24-hours with no change whatsoever in the view, exactly the same outside for two days. Wise sailor told me the colour warmer on one side, colder the other, very small gradations like judging minimal art.

Chad points out this is absolutely normal Antarctic weather, blue skies and light are the exception, “this is the good weather for the Antarctic — as sun will melt the snow.”
Actually made the Japanese artist Yasuaki Igarashi laugh, he’s from Shiba and I said ‘Ah, the Queen of Shiba’ without realising quite how accurate. One of the most poetic projects of  Biennale, up in the bar with two stools weaving his own rope in collaboration with anyone who wishes to join, recording the time and trip, and with which he will eventually fly his own kite.

Barefoot bearded Bismark (BBB) wandering through the ship, dancing last night naked soles despite broken glass mayhem 2AM.

We are crossing the Antarctic Circle, it is 11.15. It had taken us 2.5 days to get here, exactly the same as to get to the moon. A loud announcement and we all race out on top deck. MY FIRST EVER ICEBERG ! Amazing, there it is on the right side, huge weird green and blue object as if lit from within, just like that carved architectural modelling blue-foam so belovèd by Rem Koolhaas. From side it looked like a sunken ship, bridge sticking up in the air, nature mimicking its own potential, visual echo. Pondered how big compared to the one that sunk the Titanic and smart Barbara Imhof reminds me, “ but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.” Never before so aware of the reality of the phrase. It looked very absolutely freezing and inhospitable, waves crashing hard against it, so cold. And then sleek black seals leaping through the waves. All phones dying of cold taking photos, stopping blank. The loud fog horn and bells ringing and ‘Antarctic Biennale’ banner being unfurled on the front. Sheer laughter and joy and mirth and delight breaking out — just actually being here. Freezing spray and wailing whipping gale like BBC sound effects in full-effect 3D all round. Looks as if we are heading straight into icebergs in front and shards of ice floating past us, blue lit; these bobbing chunks, as if man made or anthropomorphic, with their cool azure aura.

And then the excitement of the actual mountains looming before us, these giant masses. Surprisingly like the Alps but with the sea level risen up nearly to their peaks, if you could imagine Mont Blanc with the ocean lapping bang up against it near the summit. SO huge and so inhospitable and the continuous weirdness of the blue light. Thick dark band of the sea, dark band of the higher sky and then whole layer of radiant light blue in the middle, refracted from the whiteness of snow. Against the whistling hard wind we are allowed onto the Captain’s deck with its religious quiet, stencilled sign ‘Keep Silence On Deck’ like the silent Captain himself straight from Conrad and green lit circle dials.

Preparing for our first expedition on the Zodiac rubber dinghies but if the weather is too “LARGE” we stay back. Supposed to be heading to Detaille Island and English station ‘Base W’ built in mid-50s and untouched. Whole anxiety of having my last pee and clambering into endless complicated layers of equipment; Missoni shirt, Patagonia sweater and then 50s hooded ski sweater, YSL velvet jacket, waterproof trousers with zip and velcro and waterproof red top. Cashmere scarf. Clunking along like moon walker and my new boat-buddy Kaspersky jesting with me about vodka and English and Russians, hissing “Remember the Crimea!” Reminds me the only two times they ever collaborated were WWII and stopping slaving ships together. All of us lined up along side getting ready for Zodiac, like the anxious sperms on plane in Woody Allen. Then thumbs down, not possible. Strong big waves at one beach and thick ice at the other, two Zodiacs went off to research other possible landings. As Chad later reported, the wind was 40 knots at worst, “there was an entire cul-de-sac of icebergs lined up like a city street, it was gnarly.”

I stayed in wet suit against hard rain and wind, just loved the hypnotic view, could see snow being blown off the top, a real mountain range but in deepest wild waters, emerging out from it. That impossible blue, something to do with refraction of light, the older the bluer and they are now hoping to find million year old ice. One iceberg the size of a full-scale aircraft carrier, as if hand carved out of bright blue styrofoam then chilled in deep freeze. Tannoy announcing the last Zodiacs coming back at 4.10. Detaille would have been our southernmost point and we are now heading 178 miles north, through another storm. And soon enough the BIG rocking storm takes us, up and down and thump and scrape and bump of icebergs bobbing below, wind blowing fierce rain against the windows of our nice warm Library Reading Room, loud creaking, groaning, of our boat ploughing through coldest ocean.

Up in the notorious bar we all watch Julian’s film of Bikini Atoll and his collaboration with Bismarck, a swaying camera mounted on the antler of wandering deer through Chernobyl, the images rocking and dipping as much as our boat. Furtive glances, discrete caresses, lingering proximities, drinks being bought, bodies steadying each other against that strong surge of ocean and lust. I flee to my monastic cabin and it is not even midnight. We have arrived.

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