City Art Reader 4: Art and Antarctica

18th Oct 2018

Applications for the 2019/2020 Community Engagement Programme in Antarctica close on 18 November. Cameron Ralston looks at the brief for the new programme compared to earlier funded artist expeditions to the frozen continent.

Artist at Lake Vanda. ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection.

Antarctica is a land surrounded by myth and mystery. We can piece together mental images of the people and landscapes, some from photographs, some from stories, some from science. We all know the names of famous explorers and can recall images of ice cliffs crashing into the sea and penguins huddled together. In April/May 1996 it was recognised at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Utrecht ‘that the unique character of Antarctica itself represents an inspiration for protecting its values’. These values were identified as ‘scientific, aesthetic and wilderness’. Artists, writers and musicians were seen as important for the promotion of this identity of the Antarctic continent and to capture that mystery for us to see.

In July 1996 the New Zealand Antarctic Institute (Antarctica New Zealand) was established to develop, manage and administer New Zealand’s activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Following this, in 1997 three artists – painter Nigel Brown and poets Chris Orsman and Bill Manhire – were invited to travel to Antarctica. This selection broke somewhat with previous invited artists such as Peter McIntyre (1957 and 1959) and Maurice Conly (1970 and 1974) both of whom had ties with NZ Defence Force painting and tended to paint in a traditionally realistic way that could document as well as bring back some of the story of Antarctica. Following the success of the 1997 expedition Creative New Zealand (CNZ) joined with Antarctica New Zealand to provide support both financially and in the selection of artists. This became the Artists to Antarctica Programme.

1997/98 Antarctic Arts Fellow Nigel Brown painting in the Taylor Valley. Photo by Tim Higham ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection.

Over the next ten years a wide range of artists working across mediums participated in the programme including Margaret Elliot, Phil Dadson, Anne Noble, Bronwyn Judge, Ronnie van Hout and Kathryn Madill. An invited artists programme continued occasionally during this period as well, tending to be bigger name artists. A full list of artists under these programmes can be found here. In 2005 Gina Irish wrote the following in her article Southbound: artists to Antarctica:

Since its inception, Antarctica New Zealand’s arts scheme has enjoyed widespread visibility and through quality outputs, has successfully met all objectives. The scheme has connected with unassuming audiences, shifting Antarctica beyond the traditional realm of exploration and science. These shared experiences connect the general public with a landscape that remains geographically distant, yet visually and psychologically close.[1]

1998/99 Antarctic Arts Fellows Margaret Elliot & Margaret Mahy in discussion. ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection.

The programme ran successfully for a decade until 2007 when CNZ’s partnership with Antarctica New Zealand ended due to budget constraints. Between then and 2014 Antarctica New Zealand continued to send artists but only by invitation instead of the application process that existed under the programme with CNZ. The selection of artists during this time tended to be those with a wider, more established audience perhaps more suited to the goals of distributing the Antarctic experience to New Zealanders. Artists invited include artists Peter James Smith, Laurence Aberhart, Aaron and Hannah Beehre and musicians Dave Dobbyn and Don McGlashan. This period ends with bringing down reporters from the two major national networks TVNZ and TV3.

It would be unfair to treat this as a smooth continuum of programmes as each had set out different objectives. The current Community Engagement Programme run by Antarctica New Zealand, launched in 2014, has different criteria to the Artists to Antarctica Programme and is a combination of the invitation programme and previously existing media programmes. All applicants now apply under the one banner. Antarctica New Zealand’s website reads:

Our Community Engagement Programme (formerly the Media Programme and Artists and Writers Programme) plays a crucial part in informing and influencing the public’s understanding towards the science and operations in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Our aim is to support innovative Community Engagement proposals which align to Antarctica New Zealand’s purpose; Inspiring people to connect with Antarctica, through knowledge and collaboration and vision: Valued. Protected. Understood… We are interested in applications with new and fresh ideas which aim to capture our target audiences. We want applicants to demonstrate their outreach ability and we will reward those who can demonstrate a genuine interest in Antarctica and the environment.

This is a very clear statement of intent. The focus on media and reaching out as far as possible is shift towards broadening the audience.

Megan Martin, general manager of communications and overseer of the Community Engagement Programme at Antarctica New Zealand, told the City Art Reader:

The focus and mandate of the community engagement programme is to tell New Zealanders about the science that we support and how we support it. Why we’re in Antarctica. So it has a very definite reason for being down there rather just to create beautiful artwork. It’s communications focussed, we are a government entity and we have a job to do. That’s why now there’s a real focus on everyone who goes down there having a role and from a communications point of view – whether that’s art, or journalism or education it’s about informing New Zealand about why it’s important to look after Antarctica. So in that respect it’s possibly more difficult for artists to come down. If you’re not a world-famous artist it’s quite hard to get to a big audience so that’s where you have to think outside the square about how you get the message out. One of questions asked in the application is how will you reach people and how many people you will reach? It’s not an easy ask but it is doable.

We need to know that the applicants are aligned with our vision, or the science; that we’re supporting and are portraying that back to an audience in New Zealand. So as an artist they either have to have an audience already or have a means to reach them. That might be through exhibitions, social media or books… For example we took down Sean Garwood in the 2015/16 season and he held an exhibition last year at the Arts Centre of Christchurch. His works were also recreated on New Zealand Post’s 2017 Historic Huts of the Ross Dependency stamp collection, which was pretty amazing. So that’s how he got his work out there, and the information that informs each work went along with those. He was quite lucky to get in there because his work does definitely have a more historical aspect to it.

‘I was trying to sleep in my somewhat poor looking snow trench during the AFT. I eventually gave up and reached for my sketch book. It doesn’t get any better than this sketching Mt Erebus at 0200 hrs.’ 2015/16 Community Engagement Programme participant Sean Garwood at Windless Bight. ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection.

This season James York and Poutama Hetaraka, a couple of tohunga whakairo (master carvers), are going down to create a carving based on the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, which was declared on December 1st last year. ‘This work will surround an entrance door at Scott Base,’ says Martin. ‘So those entering will pass through the story of the Marine Protected Area and New Zealand’s focus on protecting the environment. Arielle Monk who wrote the application for the project will be down there videoing and writing about the work, her role being to promote what they’re doing down there.’

2002/03 Arts Fellow Phil Dadson recording. ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection.

It seems through all this there is a tricky relationship between modern artistic practice and the needs of Antarctica New Zealand. The two can work together but unfortunately for many the opportunity to go is now essentially gone. What may have been lost is a critical eye that artists brought. This included critiquing colonisation of the continent, how the public experiences Antarctica versus the realities of being there and a different examination of the narratives of exploration.

Anne Noble for example writes on her work:

In my Antarctic work I was questioning how this visual language through which we frame Antarctica and our relationship to it, fails to serve our need to see and understand the risk to Antarctica due to the effects of climate change. I proposed a need for images that might speak, not of heroic landscapes and endeavours, but of the frailty of human perception and the fragility of the Antarctic continent itself.

2004/05 Arts Fellows David Trubridge, Kathryn Madill, Kirsten Haydon and Bernadette Hall At the Ross Dependency sign. Photo by Mike Barker ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection 2004.

I also wonder if some of the strangeness and unique outlooks have been lost and replaced with something more predictable. Bernadette Hall compared Kathryn Madill and herself to the explorer men who adorn Scott Base on their residency in 2004: ‘Fragile in their wilderness as we are in ours, they are set on making something that goes beyond themselves.’[2] This sentiment fits well with many of the artworks created, they often have an emotional resonance that connects the viewer with the place.

2016/17 Community Engagement Programme participant TV One News reporter Lisa Davies in front of the TAE hut, reporting on the completion of the conservation project in time for the Scott Base 60th Anniversary celebrations. Photo by Martin Wenzel ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection 2017.

However, as with the CNZ withdrawal, there are always costs and benefits. When you look at the expenses incurred by Antarctica New Zealand for each person they send down – the training, the preparation, the flights, the clothing, the food, the shelter, the guides – it can be appreciated that there needs to be some accountability and return made. Which is easier to measure in other forms of media and engagement.

Although there is something lost in the transition from the Artists to Antarctica Programme to the Community Engagement Programme there is also much to be gained. Antarctica New Zealand still holds a significant art collection – from each residency the organisation tended to keep an artwork – from which Megan Martin mentioned an exhibition is in the works. Finally, on the future ambitions of the Community Engagement Programme, Martin told me she has a real desire to develop the educational aspects in primary and secondary schooling as well as reaching more of the Maori population. Through these she hopes that Antarctic science can become more integrated with New Zealand’s culture of protecting the environment.

2007/08 Arts Fellow Artist Ronnie van Hout filming in -20°C and 35 knot conditions near midnight, in front of Scott Base. Photo by Tessa Duder ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection.

More information about applying for the Community Engagement Programme is available on the Antarctica New Zealand website. You can also find there lists of what information is needed and what is provided for you if you’re successful. Applications for the 2019/2020 season close this coming 18th of November at 5pm. Prospective applicants are encouraged to contact Megan Martin and her team to discuss the requirements of their applications.

[1]Gina Irish, Southbound: artists to Antarctica in Art New Zealand 117, Summer 2005, p. 42‐6

[2]Look This Way, New Zealand writers on New Zealand artists, edited by Sally Blundell

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