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Dispatches from our Man at the Antarctic Biennale: returning home

by Adrian Dannatt  |  17.04.2017
Dispatches from our Man at the Antarctic Biennale: returning home
Katya Kovaleva watercolour wash drawings in their plastic boxes, the special display system mounted on back deck
Sunday 26th March: My 97 year old father Trevor driving at top speed, a deadly 190 MPH, through parts of Brooklyn like Montréal, realised he has not driven in decades, so dangerous, like GTA, I was being thrown everywhere in the back seat, sent flying from side to side, tossed in air. Only on waking realised that my brain had managed to come up with this whole scenario of a crazy car race to explain being thrown around on my bed by the rough sea. I ask Lou Sheppard how she is this morning, “Swell” she replies.

Morning sessions: Barbara Imhof on her simulated habitat for extreme conditions, potential Mars existence, apparently the moon smells like burnt gunpowder, the dust gets into everything, they look like coal miners. 3D printing for spare parts, ‘terrestrial applications in lab phases’. She announces, “We are in space right now.” I dare to ask one question, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we already go to the moon? Maybe in the sixties, before my time of course, but that was the rumour I heard.” Jean de Pomereu on the motivations for exploration, quoting Eliot: “We must not cease from exploration… to know the place for the first time.” Walked out onto deck and billowing dyspeptic sea on every side.

Down for snooze feeling wobbly indeed. At 12.40 we heard the Russian captain announce through tannoy, “Goodbye to Antarctica!” At lunch Bismarck on his famous beard which he’s grown forever; arriving at Moscow airport he was immediately quarantined in special room for “people who look somewhat religious” and quizzed by police on the exact ‘meaning’ of his beard. He has also actually lived at our favourite Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem. I pondered if he’d brought his own family metal plaque with crest, like all the other visiting nobility, that line the historic corridors, but he did not seem to like this.

2PM, Alexander-the-Great press conference: “Everything I do as an art work… contemporary art is now very structured and tasteless so I decided we needed some pepper, something hot. I did not want to call it a ‘Biennale’ for long time but ‘trip’ or ‘voyage’ does not work and ‘Biennale’ is a sort of hook that catches everyone. Antarctic one of last places on earth where we can see miracles, for example I have never seen so many whales before, for me it was a miracle. We are here outside of time, I can’t say how long we have been here, Antarctica for me is the tabula rasa, like another planet on our earth- to create a platform to ask the questions. We are pirates trying to board the worlds of both art and science. To be an artist you have to wash away the ‘moon-ash’, to make the context by yourself. This is all ‘Potlatch’ — to give away our art for free in Antarctica, leaving no trace of it behind. All this is purely poetic and not commercial, for me it is the project of my life, and I hope you too will be inspired to make something big in your own lives.”

Trying to fight the huge waves of nausea. Up and down. Down and up. As on the voyage out I refuse the patch and the pills, hoping to make it through, and on the return through Drake’s Passage so far have not been sick, maybe more accustomed by now to the swell.

I ask why no ships on the horizon, we have never see another vessel, and it is because end of season, we are the last boat heading home. No mist but an absolute flatness of the horizon line, emptiness. Very nice Katya Kovaleva watercolour wash drawings in their plastic boxes, the special display system mounted on back deck.

Back to my beloved little cabin and asleep again all afternoon. The safest way of fighting the sickness, down in the throbbing depths.

Dehlia Hannah on Frankenstein, the summer of 1816 the largest volcano in modern times and the ‘Year Without Winter’, enjoyed the mixed-metaphor, “a pregnancy afoot.” Again walked round and round the bracing cold deck and down to dinner, where we realised for the first time how fresh lettuce was in fact appropriately named ‘Iceberg.’

All out to third floor deck to see ‘Big Ben’ Kuzkin’s latest offering, for once he was not naked himself but launched a ‘Burning Man’ figure, doused in petrol, a blazing effigy hung over side of boat by crane, so beautiful the firelight reflected on the water as it sped beneath. At the end it was dragged into the ocean, expiring in showers of angry sparks. Very Shinto, very Pagan, very dramatic, a memorable way to mark our passage out of this strange world. Using such simple means Andrey Kuzkin proves himself a very potent artist indeed.

Up in the bar some 40 Katya Kovaleva drawings hung everywhere on ropes with clothes pegs, and much discussion of the apparently amazing ‘Iceberg Alphabet’ being created in wood by Abdullah Al Saadi. Would make perfect sense that the best single art work to come out of the whole event might be by the most mysterious participant who has never spoken at all.

Film screening by Alena Ivanova-Johanson on her wild artist friends back in Moscow, most amusing notorious bohemian crew. All male of course. Clever documentary by Etienne de France on the rediscovery of the mythic ‘sea cow’, surely all fake in fact.

I join the nightly event, like a séance, down in the library; one Bluetooth mobile speaker in Yves Klein blue on the table and then the voice of Eulalia Valldosera, a six minutes speech from her retreat in the East Pyrenees, her mind-reading telepathic powers charting our own journey and communication with the jellyfish. What she terms ‘mystic activism’.

Went out for a final tour on deck and greeted by the most wonderful vision, my FIRST STARS ! To see them for the very first time on the whole voyage, not even in Ushuaia, and of course down here they are all damn muddled up and the wrong way round, from my strictly white, male, and Eurocentric point of view, and all the more marvellous for that. Went to the front bow to have the full effect, wild wind blowing against me, the prow of the ship plowing up and down, huge spray, and above me the vast constellations madly aglitter, silver points high in the freezing night, Cellini salt scattered against the black velvet. Surely recalled some sort of children’s book illustration, black-and-white, a man standing windblown at the very front of a boat in the night ocean with all the stars circling above him, Rockwell Kent? Down to bed for midnight blessing my luck anew.

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