Selections’ own Yasmina Nysten shares her ship’s diary, recounting the ideas and creations that characterised the first Antarctic Biennale

With a flair for the radical, eccentric art pirate and director of the first Antarctic Biennale Alexander Ponomarev and the spirited young curator Nadim Samman reckoned with the fact that their next artistic project had to be somewhere far beyond the reaches of human influence, somewhere devoid of all artistic convention — the South Pole. Seven years of preparation later, on March 16, some of the brightest, most creative people in the world boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov Research vessel in Ushuaia, Argentina, bound for the Antarctic continent. I was lucky enough to be on board.
The artists participating in the biennale were Abdullah Al Saadi (UAE), Alexander Ponomarev (Russia), Alexis Anastasiou (Brazil), Andrey Kuzkin (Russia), Eulalia Valldosera (Spain), Gustav Dusing (Germany), Joaquin Fargas (Argentina), Julian Charriere (France/Switzerland), Juliana Cerqueira Leite (Brazil), Julius von Bismarck (Germany), Katya Kovaleva (Russia), Lara Favaretto (Italy), Paul Rosero Contreras (Ecuador), Shama Rakhman (Bangladesh/UK), Sho Hasegawa (Japan), Tomas Saraceno (Argentina/Germany), Yasuaki Igarashi (Japan), Yto Barrada (Morocco) and Zhang Enli (China).

Along with the commissioner, Ponomarev, there are six members of the artistic advisory board: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries (Switzerland/UK); Hani Rashid, co-founder of Asymptote Architecture (Canada/USA); Sam Keller, director of the Fondation Beyeler (Switzerland); Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, practicing artist, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation (UAE); and Nadim Samman, co-director of Import Projects (Germany).
Nadim brought to our attention that the world’s engagement with Antarctica is highly formatted for the entertainment industry by a centralised production and distribution system. Not having been commissioned by a governmental institution made it possible for this mission to cross the South Pole with a new kind of freedom. Nonetheless, in using Antarctica as a driving force, as oppose to a form of escapism, certain blunt realities needed to be confronted to validate and institutionalise the legacy we are bringing back to each one of our respective communities.
For the first round table, the continent as “Utopia” was the suggested topic of discussion by cross-disciplinary participant Carlo Rizzo. What is the imaginary space we are creating around the real thing? Artist Julius Von Bismarck suggested that nature is comparable to God and Antarctica is a place where He may exists in His purest form — attributing idealistic extremes to any earthly thing gives one license to be critical about the present. Along with being the closest thing we have to a Garden of Eden, artist Paul Rosero points out, Antartica is “a geopolitical territory in dispute” and so a magnet for social judgement. After clashing notions were raised about conserving the purity of the place, not even leaving a trace for future visitors to see, to other concerns about the climatic changes affecting wildlife, philosopher Dehlia Hannah perfectly summed it up by suggesting that rather than conceptually dissecting the geographical location, we should consider “the project itself as the main utopian gesture.”
The ship became an ideal platform for formal cross-disciplinary discussions and fleeting moments of casual repartee. This social/cultural/ecological experiment was shaping up to be a mutual learning experience between artists and scientists. Space designer and creator of the Liquifier System Group, a platform with a cross-disciplinary approach to designing human exploration systems, Susmita Mohanty gave a lecture about habitability issues in a comparative study of astronauts living on the MIR space station and others living on a space shuttle.
While I learnt that some of these astronauts witnesses 16 sunsets and sunrises daily, Moroccan artist Yto Baraka wasn’t witnessing any. She was in the basement of the ship, discovering the new Antarctic tradition of tinting cloth. by cooking up a storm, she was extracting the pigments of the natural elements she found on this journey and making colourful fabrics.

On another day, while Nick Shapiro and Liz Barry made float the giant Aeroscene, a type of balloon conceived by Tomas Saraceno as a potential form of transportation that doesn’t burn any fossil fuels, musician and scientist Shamah Rahman’s live sitar performance echoed across Paradise Bay.
While dwelling with each other in such close proximity, critical thinking on the effects of science on art and vice versa seemed necessary. In one discussion, research professor in cognitive science Margaret Boden’s distinction between Improbalist creativity, a framework concerning new combinations of familiar ideas, and Impossiblist creativity, a framework leading to completely new ideas engendered by research into conceptual spaces, was mentioned as a basis for confrontation between the disciplines in our present circumstance.
The historical moments of division between cultural systems and science allowed new notions to blossom in each field, mentioned artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite. But in order to encompass the very nature of the present world, a new creative structure commissioned by all human disciplines is what is needed. Even though the interpretative tools that will enable the Antarctic community to engage a global audience are slowly shaping into an institution with a solid infrastructure, the organisers of the biennale seem to trust its future. They are already planning exhibitions in a minimum of six countries. I had the privilege of getting in-depth reports on a few projects that stood out as symbols of global awareness.
In preparation for the Antarctic Biennale, Samman, who served as curator of the fourth Marrakech Biennale in 2012 and is co-director of Import Projects and editor of Near East Magazine, visited the Scott Polar research institute in Cambridge to understand what art has already been done in the region. He read numerous expedition chronicles and referred to strange philosophical theories about the poles. “It’s about appealing to enthusiasts,” he says. He believes that when you have an idea big enough, you can carry people along with you.
What was initially an intellectual journey evolved into a tedious logistical process. Discovering what would be the best formal plan to get to Antarctica, then how to work with the crew on a ship and the climactic constraints, all while supervising the artists’ and scientists’ equipment, was an endeavour only a bold dreamer with an industrious mind could have carried out to its full completion.

Samman’s professional identity is not that of an artist but an agent of dreams, whose aim is to create a sort of “bricolage” or “hybrid persona” composed of different creative exploits. He finds it more important to create this kind of scheme, which welcomes a web of interesting questions, than to generate one answer to a theme. For him, this is a kind of “letting go.” His mind’s eye, however, is always scoping out the future for another mystery to unravel. What is Samman’s next Antarctica seems to play out in the form of a riddle, which he will solve through his distinctly playful approach to life.
One of the few aboard who has already visited Antarctica for the duration of a month is Ecuadorian artist Paul Rosero Contreras. He felt it odd that they didn’t have access to fresh food after a week. This time, he returns with a premeditated proposal called Arriba! that may potentially ameliorate living conditions in the region. With a Masters in cognitive systems and interactive media, an MFA in art and technology, Contreras explains that 55 million years ago Antarctica was a pre-tropical environment containing plants. He constructed the prototype of a micro greenhouse containing a live cocoa leaf to be placed in the spot that still contains fossils from that ancient time. This is, in a way, a proposal for the futuristic possibility of farming cacao or tropical plants in extreme environments, a historical reenactment linked to Antarctica on one hand and Ecuador on the other, where the plants originate.
Another layer of his plan is the production of chocolate from his plant. Contreras. sponsors, Pacart, not only produce some of the finest chocolate worldwide but run a very fair trade. They have created a micro-economy between companies and producers so that one may trace the chocolate one is consuming right to the very plant it was made from with cheerful and generous spirit perfectly parallels his offering to the members of the Antarctic Biennale. We all receive a piece of the delicacy contained in a silver wrapper that reads: “…and new trees will be born out of the glaciers, into the vertigo of eternity.” The artist insists that it all plays into the theme of non-evasive exploration.
The motives of this next participant are very different. Berlin-based Swiss-French artist Julian Charriere felt like he became an “Antarctican” through what he thinks was a “stolen moment” bonded in a capsule, traveling down space and time. “A few people are born in Antarctica… I should really look into that” he says, perhaps through spending a winter in a settlement, which he seems willing to do. Charriere’s observations are peculiar. For instance, he observed the following: directly beneath the major hole in the ozone layer, all visitors must disinfect their clothes and boots before stepping onto land. As unfoolish as we may be about the reality of pollution, Charriere finds it nice that this protocol must be observed on principle. There is something to be learnt from this pristine image we are projecting onto Antarctica.

Whether the outcome be sculpture, performance or photography, Charriere’s real work is primarily contained within the event of exploration in specific sites. The project he planned on executing during this Biennale is based on Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole, a novel about a retired moon-explorer’s purchase of the highest reached parallel on earth, located in the North Pole, for the purpose of a gargantuan engineering operation. The brilliant backfire of shooting an enormous cannon would theoretically shift the tilt in the earth’s axis so as to become perfectly perpendicular to the planets orbit. The objective was to extract carbon from the arctic underground.
The artist built a “coconut canon” in the Bikini Atoll (which means “coconut place” in Marshallese and is where the colloquialism bikini swimwear originates) in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. After scouting locations including Antarctica and the Galapagos, this islet was chosen for many investigative operations testing the effect of nuclear weapons on warships in the ’50s. Charriere’s plan was to actualise an aggressive metaphor of Verne’s fiction in the Antarctic using his coconut canon. Tilting the earth’s axis would result in a homogenisation of seasons around the world, therefore melting the ice, which would facilitate the extraction of raw subterranean materials. Whether by extreme impact or by gradual processes, natural order is Charriere’s instrument of improvisation.
Along with us was Charriere’s studio partner Julius von Bismarck, with whom he often creates projects. This German artist’s highly procedural installations and performative pieces are also drawn from his experience with specific environments. Interacting directly with nature, often in extreme conditions, controlled hypnotic repetition is one reappearing structure in his work, although his project-based style demands various other techniques. His conceptual inclination seems to involve carrying out a simple idea to its most extreme form of expression.
For the Antarctic Biennale, von Bismarck wanted to make a goldfish’s dream come true, as I like to see it. by isolating a fresh water fish in a remote controlled tank and submerging it in Antarctic waters, fresh and salt water fish can share the same habitat for a moment in time. He would control the tank’s trajectory according to the fish’s swimming direction.
Art differs from science in that it does not require the pursuit of any kind of proof. However scientifically impossible it may be for all the gill-baring species to survive in the same habitat, it didn’t stop von Bismarck from making it a temporary reality. It’s a valuable pursuit in that it exists for its own sake and opens the mind to the idea of entertaining impossibilities. An early engagement in scientific fields temporarily withheld the integral stance von Bismarck takes about his current profession, being an artist. Instead he has re-appropriated science’s logistical rhetoric as a passport to uncharted, borderline inappropriate terrain for artists and has made it his playground. His recent endeavor in Venezuela to summon lightening from the sky required the assistance of purely scientific contenders and engaging all his disciplines in favour of the ruling one.
With a slightly more whimsical approach, Berlin-based architect and designer Gustav Düsing chose to build a large minimalistic tent made of a sheet of flowing white cloth, tethered to the ground by stones collected from the land itself. The aim was to spray the tent with water at intervals, so that it may freeze into the shape of wind catching into the sail-like structure. This nomadic type of journey, going from point to point in a spatially extreme landscape, inspired a pragmatic approach. However romantic the image of the tent on the deserted, penguin-inhabited shore may have been, the fabrication was primarily informed by logistical aspects: transportation, weight, building time and weather.
Favouring the sustainability movement to the high-tech one, Düsing is happy to see that there is nothing too invasive or elegant about the final result of his intervention and feels the tent was the right architectural answer to this Biennale and the climactic properties of Antarctica. He finds that there is a real catalogue of aesthetic information in the south pole. The porous, white walls of the glaciers inspired the tent’s vertical profile. Düsing points out that our culturally invasive journey was still of small proportion in comparison to the magnitude of the landscape. His tent, however, seemed to compliment the surrounding visual language in a way that made the sign of human life feel organic.
The formal visual language of “sedimentation, collapse, compression and compaction” distinctive to the land is what Brazilian artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite is inspired by on this journey. She plans on bringing it into her practice as a contrast to the cultural persuasions of rigid, vertically dominant structures in New York, where she resides and works. She refers to herself as a sculptor rather than an artist. Her process usually involves the manipulation of raw material, like the piece Blind Spot 2, where she submerged herself in the centre of a large clay structure and progressively dug out the maximum amount of material in her reach. She engages with concepts pertaining to the limits of human scope.
Vestibule is an installation she put together in an enclosed room at the bottom of the ship, comprising four motion-stabilised chairs suspended in front of a live HD CCTV panoramic projection. A camera mounted to the ship’s bow recorded the view from the pilot’s perspective. The gravitational centre of the chairs were so that they counter-reacted our natural physiological understanding of motion. As one contemplated the ship’s forward glide, one’s relationship to nautical motion was completely skewed. The passengers haven’t factored in the 30-hour standard time it takes to adapt to the unstable ship. Vestibule radically emphasised the precariousness of our senses. Leite has drawn a poetic synthesis from the unpredictable immediacy of humans’ relationship to environmental elements.
The presence of such artists is essential on our journey, according to sustainability scientist Lisen Paula Schultz, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Center. Schultz declares that “given the fact that we are humans on this earth, we will only preserve things that we care about. And if we are to care about Antarctica we need to find an expression for it somehow.” She feels like the scientific language is only good enough to show how Antarctica is objectively essential to our survival. The emotional and spiritual value isn’t part of scientific expertise.
Trained as an ecologist, she takes issue with the traditional practice that drives researchers to places untouched by man. She prefers living in areas where humans are integrally part of the ecological system. Since we have become a dominant species, these times are critical in re-observing and creating new ways of relating to the biosphere. Seeing Antarctica as an untouchable pristine land, or seeing it as a place for humans to extract from are both ideologies that amplify the separation between humans and nature. “We belong here. We live together,” she says. A cultural Antarctic vocabulary is in order, so that it may simulate what it was like for Schultz to experience telepathic “love” when she interacted with a whale up close.
The artist that most directly contributed to the creation of a new language was Emirati painter Abdullah Al Saadi, a quiet and reserved character who joined the buzzing vessel as an observer. In the past, he has been known to codify cultivated patterns into shape-based alphabets. For example, he created an alphabet out of tokens his mother left at his studio door.
Al Saadi’s observation of the Antarctic landscape was insightful. He isolated the one element embodying the simplest of contradictions: glaciers, identical to each other in most ways yet completely different from everything else in the world. Scattered on the waters, the glistening blocks of blue ice were the basis of the “Antarctic Alphabet”. The artists says that “they are unique sculptures” seemingly done by the same hand. After he returns, he hopes to use this document as a basis for an artistic project, perhaps involving wood and metal.
Canadian artist Louis Sheppard used the map of Antarctica to create a musical language. After a few months of drifting into painting as a means of mapping out ideas, she re-engages in her regular multi-media practice, just in time for the Antarctic Biennale. The artist and musician extracted an aerial photograph of the Antarctic peninsula coastline from Google Satellite imagery, then beautifully traced the bumps, corners and curves of the map. The outcome is a long scroll resembling some kind of sophisticated nautical diagram. “The drawings resulted in strange lines and dots that look very much like a code, which they are because they are the code of the landscape,” she explains.
Using audio software, Sheppard transcribed those annotations into a musical score, dictated by the shapes, assigning notes to designated points of her topographic depiction. The audio piece was played on an icy island on the first day of our landing. The “sound of the coastline,” a soothing, piano-dominant ambient melody echoed for miles around. A few seals on the shore seemed captivated by these foreign sounds.
In the words of poet Gibran Khalil Gibran, “art is a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed.” Ponomarev made it essential for all to know that this project is essentially two things: first, the Biennale of Process. “Journey brings one to the sudden understanding of full presence,” he says. The artistic events happening throughout the 12 days created chronological capsules in a space devoid of linear time; which brings us to the second title: the Biennale of Time. Standing upside down on the face of the earth, in the one geographical location where the conventions of clocks are most distorted, we get to create our own temporal knowledge.
According to Einstein, “there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Ponomarev favours the latter. The reason he brought us all together is because, to him, Antarctica is one of the last places on earth where miracles are truly possible.
As we sail back from the empire of ice, we are about to reach Cape Horn, the very tip of a familiar land. Samman points out how beautiful it is to “understand that there is an unbroken mass of land peeling from behind that tip of continent, all the way up to the arctic itself.” We bring back fragments of abstract thought, literal illustrations, bonding memories and a lot of art that the world has never seen before. As a first-hand witness, what truly makes it magical is that none of it was a trick.