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The Arctic Tundra as Architecture

Andrew Mead reviews an exhibition focusing on ‘The last Imaginary Place’, looking at the Arctic as a place of architecture and habitation

There is a book about the Arctic with a very apt title, The Last Imaginary Place. Its archaeologist author Robert McGhee surveys years of progressive enlightenment about the region, as facts replace fantasies and science supplants the imagination. Faced with this proliferating information, McGhee asks: ‘Do knowledge and clear vision compensate for the loss of the imaginary world, or is it possible for the two levels of perception to coexist?’ He decides they can.

This interplay of the factual and the imaginary is at the heart of a big exhibition at the Louisiana Museum, which focuses on the last two centuries − a period in which the Arctic was first an ideal realm for artists, a site of sublime landscapes, but is now ripe for exploitation, as recent Greenpeace protests over oil drilling have highlighted. In the process it reminds us that the region is not just a place of inhuman ice and snow but of architecture and habitation, whether in longstanding coastal settlements in Greenland, industrial towns in Siberia, or widespread US military installations from the Cold War. If the exhibition prompts more trains of thought than it pursues, that’s perhaps inevitable with so resonant a subject.

The blurb says excitedly that the show is about ‘dreams, destiny, adventure and beauty … a tale of fear, fascination, desire, downfall’, but it begins rather dourly with photographs taken in 2003 by Darren Almond − near monochromes in shades of grey and white in which the horizon almost vanishes and the landscape is a source of bleakness not beauty. They make an effective contrast with what lies beyond: the Arctic in the visions of 19th-century artists, presented as reproductions in huge freestanding light-boxes. Of course these paintings were fictions, contrived in the studio, and the show puts them in context by including smaller versions of works by Caspar David Friedrich, Turner et al, which equally aspired to the sublime.


As knowledge about the Arctic increased, the awe, fear and beauty of the sublime were displaced by data. In an alluring group of antique maps we see the shift from the voids and speculations of Renaissance cartographers to the precise plotting of mineral deposits in geological surveys of Greenland. This map-making comes right up-to-date with the work of ScanLAB, which creates digital models of ice floes − the results resemble space probe images of distant planets.

Ironically, the names most readily associated with the Arctic are not of people who have discovered most about it but who instead have been in quest of the North Pole. The exhibition takes a sceptical view of such ‘heroism’, but there is rich visual material on one of these adventurers, Fridtjof Nansen, in some engaging vintage photos − for instance, Nansen ruminatively smoking a pipe in front of his ship, the Fram, which was trapped in ice for two years.

Eventually the ice broke up and released the Fram from its grip, but today it seems that the ice is disintegrating more generally. The show’s line on climate change is neatly summed up in one caption: ‘There is a widespread consensus that global warming exists and has been man-made over the last 200 years. Disagreement concerns what the effects of these changes will be.’

Taking a long view of fluctuations in climate, one exhibit features the remains of a forest discovered well above the current tree-line in northern Greenland − it’s thought to date from a warm inter-glacial period some 2 million years ago. But the impact on the region’s residents of any future change is not examined. What we find instead in the section on habitation are 19th-century watercolours of a Greenland village with its church and seminary, and photographs of the Siberian town of Tiksi − a military and scientific base now largely abandoned with the end of government funding.


There is some intriguing material on US military infrastructure in the Arctic, including a gung-ho propaganda film on the creation of Camp Century, a nuclear-powered research station beneath the Greenland ice cap. But while a special Greenland issue of Arkitektens Forlag (2012:4) is on sale in Louisiana’s bookshop, the show itself gives little sense of today’s townscape and architecture. This seems like a real omission, given the excellent photos by Olaf Otto Becker and Joël Tettamanti that could readily fill the gap.

Punctuating the exhibition are works by contemporary artists, who the curators say are taking a renewed interest in the Arctic after decades of indifference. Ellie Ga spent five months as the only artist on a scientific exhibition in the Arctic Ocean, but judging from her Drift Drawings − meagre both aesthetically and intellectually − she hardly made the most of her time.

Other works have more to offer: Jacob Kirkegaard’s eerie Icefall, surrounding you in a darkened room with the sounds of a melting glacier; a hypnotic video by Sophie Calle, shot from a ship slowly steering past gleaming icebergs; and more icebergs, with fantastic profiles, in a photograph by Per Bak Jensen. Clearly the sublime can still be found in the Arctic, not least in a time-lapse sequence of the Northern Lights, which proves that nature can still upstage Hollywood when it comes to special effects.


Less elegant than it could be, the catalogue reproduces many of the works and contains some worthwhile texts, including one by Peter Davidson, whose fine book The Idea of North has much in common with The Last Imaginary Place. ‘The north has always been a place of marvels and wonders, of which the first, perhaps, is ice itself … Greenland is powerful as an idea, one of the most powerful ideas of north. Even to Scandinavians, it was the true ultima Thule,’ writes Davidson. 

But recent months have seen not just Greenpeace protests about oil drilling but the announcement that a UK company, London Mining, is about to create a vast open-cast iron ore mine in Greenland − ‘the largest commercial project in the country’s history’. Perhaps Almond’s bleak photographs at the start of the show are prescient. Whether through climate change, mining, or just too much information, the Arctic of the imagination is precarious now and may soon lose its power to enchant.


Venue: Louisiana Museum
City: Humlebæk, Denmark
Dates: Until 2 February


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