Women artists in the Arctic Espaces des Femmes, Paris, France June - July 2021
“This exhibition investigates the uniqueness of women’s art about the Arctic and aims to see if there is a different way—a feminine way—of investigating our moral relationship to nature and an ecosystem as unique and challenging as that of the Arctic.”
image: Anthi-Danaé Spathoni
recycled cotton rag paper panel, drafting paper & pen, gold leaf, hair
During my 2017 residency in the archipelago of Svalbard in the High Arctic, my focus was on gathering field data referencing human impact on glacial and polar ice melt in the Arctic. Through the medium of handmade paper, Disarticulation is a personal representation of this time and experience, a melding of body and water. A single sheet, my height and shoulder width, hangs suspended, a delicate system of channels running down its length. The whiteness and flow of the paper suggestive of a glacial landscape flowing south.
A drawing of the Arctic icecap, representative of the month I was there, is sutured onto the glacial paper using my hair collected during lockdown - a time when the world slowed down, and the planet was given a chance to breathe. It is an unrealistic attempt to repair, yet so filled with hope. Layered behind is a second, golden icecap. Will we continue to be seduced by the riches that lie beneath or might we instead consider the irreplaceable value of the icecap itself?
Messages from the Arctic
The Arctic has been a fascinating and mysterious place for the artists, explorers, scientists and adventurers who have been travelling there since the early sixteenth century. But it was during the late 18th century that the North Pole became a current destination and subject for painters. These representations coincided with the discovery of the mountain glaciers and the creation of the Romantic landscape tradition. C.D. Friedrich’s and J.M.W.Turner’s views of icy mountains obtain a metaphysical meaning and give birth to the sublime, used as the term to describe the experience of the feelings generated by these sights. Throughout the centuries, it had been those male, western travelers and conquerors shaping our consciousness about nature. It was not until recently that women were able to explore the Arctic for themselves.
Our exhibition gathering 18 women artists from around the world wants to present their approaches to the North of the Arctic Circle. The artists have adopted a rich variety of different media: painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, prints and dance among others. They have also experimented with various styles that embrace and respond to the icy and cold landscape, the environmental challenges and the ecological reality of climate change.
All 18 women artists create and tell a story that they want to show and share with each visitor, a story that reflects their own experience. This storytelling reveals two facets, often coexisting at the same time. The first is linked to landscape’s romantic tradition and the second shows an active engagement which wants to prevent the ecological disaster. Sublime vistas of nature’s immensity henceforth cannot be seen without expressing a deep concern for the future and a cry for help. These works try to find a balance between reality, hope and despair, the beauty of the infinite landscape and the destruction provoked by humans.
Such an example is Tamara Enz’s photographs. These sublime views present the Arctic as a 18th-century-landscape in which human presence can only underline the pole’s immensity. A contradiction is suggested: no matter how small the human scale might appear, the impact of human actions on nature and the ecological disaster caused by humans are massive. Theresa Baughman’s photographs find a similar balance between landscape’s amplitude and its fragility which she tries to listen through her Sound tape: Listening to the Glaciers.Those tapes do not pretend to result from any scientific study; they initiate a conversation with nature and invite spectator’s own reflection and meditation. Karen Vermeren’s works bring together two motifs of the romantic tradition, the window and the gray landscape while her plexibox, Esmarkbreen, tries to capture and enclose in a tangible way the Arctic experience. Danielle Eubank’s blurry views of the cold landscape recall the romantic tradition as well. However, her oil painting seems to trace the ecological disaster and Floating ice shows what is left from massive ice mountains. This aspect of global warming suggested through the poetics of presence and absence is also apparent in Angela Gilmour’s prints. Her etchings show in black and white what is missing, giving presence to the absence of a place “where once there was a glacier” as the title suggests.
Emma Hoette’s video performance is consisted of simple, ritual gestures that want to underline human’s impact on the Arctic. Her hand un-knitting the knit presents a rhythmic choreography, which reveals a parallel between “production and consumption of fossil fuels” as the artist puts it. Contrary to the time needed to make it, unraveling a knitting takes a few seconds. This is also the case for the earth which needs time to produce fossil fuels, whereas their consumption can be instant. Ecological disaster is presented not only visually through this analogy, but also aurally. The spectator can perceive as a background noise, the loud sound of melting and falling ice in the Ocean. If this destructive splashing offers a voice to the suffering Arctic, Annique Goldenberg’s oeuvre gives it a physical presence. She transforms her handmade paper into a three-dimensional object which recalls the surface of the ice. It is as if the paper’s uneven surface invites the visitor to touch it. Arctic thus becomes a touchable and physical experience.
In Beth Jones’ video, the artist’s monologue mingles her thoughts with the experience of her voyage to the Arctic. She invites the spectator to follow the thread of her story from the New York of the 1950s to today’s environmental reality. Claire Dibble’s set of photographs also traces the Arctic trip capturing the adventure as a visual diary which invites the spectator to experience this owe-inspiring sea of ice. These pictures focus on nature as a shared experience where the wild and the domesticated could coexist. On the other hand, Ellis O’Connor abstract paintings capture the silence, the atmosphere, the colors, forms and dreamlike qualities of ice which could seem as vague impressions or souvenirs of the mind. Stephanie Imbeau’s Procession presents a series of site-specific installations, performances and resultant videos and photographs that blur the lines between public and private. Imbeau brings to the Arctic her ongoing project. In this context, it evokes ceremonial rituals, where “to put on a garment can be a signifier of an extraordinary event” for each individual, moment, and place, as the artist mentions.
Tania Dibbs experiments in three dimensions: her sculpture of found objects appears like a rare shellfish or coral, a jewelry that could be found at the bottom of the sea. It recalls the beauty and richness of underwater creatures and natural forms. Her line drawing also suggests forms and natural living creatures that mark the surface of the ice with “bubbles and cracks”. Rachel Abrams’ linen also presents a line drawing that could appear as a fragile map of the Arctic. Next to her it, her frazil collages meditate on the “immensity of glaciers and the psychological devastation of standing on unmapped land that once was covered by a glacier”. As Abrams says, “these works create understanding through experience, to allow someone who may not have the opportunity to be in the physical space of a glacier, to be in the psychological space of a glacier.” Jennifer Willet’s Mitosis embraces the idea of creation, germination, growing and reproduction. The experience of the north pole, the cultivation of seeds that she tried during her trip while experiencing motherhood (the artist was pregnant with twins), become a reflection on nature’s preservation and its creative forces.
Aimee Smith presents a choreography inspired by the “fragility and strength of an iced landscape” in the artist’s words. It is this same aspect of fragility that Barbara Crawford’s installation and painting also want to point out. The visitor, “like the visitor to the Arctic, can come but must maintain a balance”, his or her presence has to be discreet and careful. Accordingly, human’s approach to ‘our common house’, the planet, has to be with important measure and responsibility in order to “maintain the order found in nature” Crawford adds.
Regan Rosburg’ video presents a monologue in a form of a letter that the artist writes to the future. Facing the disaster of climate change, she expresses guilt resulting from the acknowledgment that the artist’s generation was aware of the ecological damage and now, it is too late. She reflects a mother’s sensibility: acknowledging a sense of responsibility of a mother to her child, the artist’s letter becomes a message of apology to the future generation. Nora Silva’s shares the same apologetic approach in her performance in the Arctic. As “an attempt to restrain global warming”, the artist throws ice cubes back to the North Pole. Her ironic gesture reveals the futility of the action itself. Are our attempts to prevent climate change going to be proven futile like Silva’s gesture? Is it too late? The artist calls for “a constant effort” to be born “out of the grieving for the lost ice”.
Even though in the Arctic circle, as in the rest of the Western world, gender equality has not been achieved yet, and there is still a serious misrepresentation of non-white-centric ethnicities and cultures, the hope behind this group exhibition is that these artists could speak about experiences that would be able to appeal to everyone. Their discrete presence in the Arctic, the experience of the northern seas that they try to communicate and above all, their determination that an active engagement would be the only way to prevent an ecological disaster are their way of dealing with the future. This is their message from the Arctic to our ‘dear future’, a message full of hope and concern, or as Regan Rosburg summed up in two words, “Dear future, I hope there is one”.
Anthi-Danaé Spathoni, PhD
Co-curator of the exhibition
Art Historian, researcher
University Rennes 2