Art at the End of the World: A Diary from the Antarctic Biennale
A typical sailing tour of the Antarctic Peninsula is a focused encounter with Mother Nature, a journey through icy tundras, past humpback whales and epic vistas—so I’m told.
But the expedition I took there last month, aboard the 117-meter-long Akademik Sergey Vavilov, as part of a project called the Antarctic Biennale, was anything but typical. It came replete with art installations, salon discussions, and a cast of colorful international characters—artists, scientists, and philosophers—not to mention a powerful sense that nothing quite like this had been ventured before.
A case of overstimulation seemed inevitable. And that’s precisely what I was feeling when the Biennale’s 10-day cruise ended on March 28th, the dream of an “art adventure” in the South Pole finally realized after years of planning by organizer and artist Alexander Ponomarev.
But I had it easy. I was not one of the young staffers answering to Ponomarev; nor was I part of the One Ocean expedition team, fielding requests from anxious artists while herding them and another several dozen passengers along. No, my job was simply to listen and watch.
20 March. I’m fairly certain that my most lasting memory of the trip came two days in, around the time we crossed the Antarctic Circle. Many of us poured out onto the bow to be there for the crossing. The light was dull, the water steely. We’d left the big swells of the Drake Passage behind, and the Akademik Sergey Vavilov was pushing forward as the first icebergs I’d seen since our departure began to emerge in the mist.
The mood on the bow was celebratory; some eagerly snapped photos, and an Antarctic Biennale flag was hoisted. To my mind, though, the surroundings called for a more somber reception. The menacing sea and stinging wind brought an awe-inspiring sense of foreboding, a feeling that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
21 March. The sun came out for the first shore landing, which was no less welcome. The first artworks went up on rose-pink snow at Petermann Island. From the outset, one passenger in particular had caught my attention. He was lean as a pole, with a leather jacket and a Muppet-like mop of hair, and often joined the same self-contained cadre of Russians for cigarettes on the smoking deck.
This intriguing figure turned out to be a philosopher—a rather respected one, I gather—named Alexander Sekatsky. And in one of the most wonderful gestures of the trip, he delivered, during this landing, a brief lecture on the pleasures of contemplation—to an audience of penguins.
Only a couple of passengers witnessed it, giving the event an air of hearsay, even if it was (like much of the trip) also captured on video. I heard about it later that night from one of the scientists who’d been invited along, an Austrian engineer who makes lunar research labs. She told me the penguin lecture was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen.
Among the permanent features of Petermann Island: the grave of an ill-fated expedition party, an empty hut claimed by Argentina, and an entertaining colony of Gentoo penguins—a fairly typical combination, it turned out, for landings on the Antarctic Peninsula.
And we got a taste of human life in Antarctica at Vernadsky Research Base, a Ukrainian station where there were a dozen or so scientists in residence. My group’s tour of the retro-feeling base came courtesy of a fine-featured young meteorologist named Boris, with piercing blue eyes, a dark mat of hair, and a beard that put Rasputin’s to shame. He was like a Slavic prince gone incognito at the ends of the earth.
He made for a lighter-than-usual conversation topic at dinner. Artist and scientists had been giving presentations of their work the two previous days, and we’d already touched on ideas of “utopia” in a semi-improvised salon discussion. Later themes would include the changing nature of exploration, and how the group could ensure the Antarctic Biennale had a lasting impact.
22 March. After breakfast, we rushed out onto the starboard deck to watch a pair of humpbacks breach immediately below us. Little did we know, this was just a warm-up; the whale show in the Errera Channel proved spectacular. One humpback would surface nearby your Zodiac, then you’d look up and see a half-dozen more, tipping their flukes up in the middle distance and sending little puffs of water up on the far horizon.
Even the expedition crew, most of whom had never been to the Antarctic this late in the season, seemed astounded. Whale activity picks up as winter approaches. Artistic concerns were eclipsed by this display for the rest of the day.
23 March. Witnessed a leopard seal thrashing a penguin to death—a far cry from the peaceful-looking humpbacks of the day before! This savagery went down on Cuverville Island, where artist Gustav Düsing proceeded to erect a cotton tent inspired by polar lodgings of the Ernest Shackleton era and designed to foster conviviality. Unfortunately, the air never got cold enough to provide the icy coating he wanted for the installation.
Meanwhile, the Biennale achieved what was surely the continent’s first outdoor photo exhibition: black-and-white images taken and printed by the Russian contingent on board—including Ponomarev and architect Alexey Kozr—and installed in shallow water in Plexiglas boxes. Like the tent, it drew a crowd of curious penguins.
Many artists found themselves bowing to production and environmental constraints along our journey. But this did not seem to be the case with Ponomarev, the expedition’s intrepid leader. He’s been envisioning his Antarctica project for years, and the launch of his oversized installation that same afternoon was the only one that felt like an all-hands-on-deck operation.
Based on a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and inspired by Jungian formulations of dark and light, it consisted of three globes suspended underwater. Each of them contained an illuminated orb. The idea was for the three of them to hang there like some great chandelier, reflecting the moonlight as though to harken the arrival of clarity in a darkened mind. But only the whales got a proper look at the final piece.
24 March. Bluebird skies all day. We disembarked at Almirante Brown station, where Tomás Saraceno’s solar-heated Aerocene balloons finally got off the ground. These nearly weightless sculptures require sun and relatively still air, and that morning had both, allowing the ethereal black nylon tetrahedrons to undulate over the icebergs. Their bulk and slow rhythms recalled the movement of the whales we’d seen earlier.
Nearby, the artist Paul Rosero Contreras had installed a cocoa plant in the snow, sealed in a tube. This was part of a work he had begun activating at breakfast, when he’d distributed chocolate bars and piped jungle sounds into the ship’s dining room.
That afternoon, the entire group took a half-hour moment of silence at a place called Paradise Bay, where the pure-white glaciers were trimmed in an incredibly vivid, almost antiseptic shade of blue.
25 March. Woke up early (6:30am) to watch the ship make its narrow entry into Whalers Bay, on Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands. It was an evocative place, with a handful of ruins—a Norwegian whaling station, an abandoned British military base—slowly dilapidating on the black-sand beach. Some of us had brought swimsuits, in expectation of a polar dip. But there were dozens of excitable fur seals in the water, and the One Ocean team nixed our swim.
Most everyone I spoke to agreed: Whalers Bay felt haunted. And in a way, it was the perfect place for artist Yasuaki Igarashi to launch his kite project. Its tether was a braided rope that he had been weaving by hand throughout the trip, with help from passengers. It had been left unfinished, the rope petering out into thread. Now the reason for that became clear, as Igarashi urged additional helpers to come along and take hold of a single thread—a team effort that served as a lovely finale to the artmaking portion of the trip.
We made our last landing in the afternoon, visiting a Russian Orthodox priest in his tiny church and some Chilean servicemen at their naval rescue station. This was Maxwell Bay, where there were a few cars and an airport. Our return to a disappointingly familiar world felt imminent.
26 March. The Drake Passage was calmer on the way back: better conditions for ruminating on the experience of the past week. London curator Carlo Rizzo, who’d been an articulate presence throughout the trip, led a discussion of the expedition’s potential legacy. Rizzo drove home the point that without focus and coordination in the coming weeks, the whole thing could be dismissed as a lark.
Biennale co-curator Nadim Samman had also encouraged a certain amount of self-questioning along the way. His circumspect, theory-fueled approach contrasts with that of Ponomarev, who rhapsodizes freely about how polar regions “clean the eyes”—and is already speaking of organizing a similar voyage around Greenland.
27 March. The captain joined us all for dinner on this final night on board. Certificates were handed out, making the evening feel a bit like graduation. The biggest cheers of all were for a cameraman who’d barely said a word throughout the trip—in stoic tolerance of a Russian TV reporter who’d made a nuisance of herself at every opportunity.
(“We had a revolution because of people like this,” another Russian muttered to me at one point, as the reporter barked out commands to whoever was nearest.) The expedition staff had discreetly taken to calling her Cruella DeVille.
But this was as much conflict as arose onboard our comfortable passenger vessel, where we were insulated from the hostile realities of the continent.
Still, faced with the Antarctic canvas, artists were taken out of their comfort zones. And a related discussion seemed to energize things on board: Is Antarctica a tabula rasa for artmaking, as Ponomarev confidently called it? Samman has suggested in his own writings that it is the “last continent of freedom.”
Yet such talk was too bombastic for some. Artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite disputed the characterization of our surroundings as the “last wilderness,” and her multimedia installation explored the idea of dislocation within highly controlled environments. It never left the ship, which served as a statement in itself.
In the last of his little treatises, Sekatsky channeled Nietzsche, and (relying, in typical ceremonial fashion, on a translator that he did not need) described Antarctica as “a platform where all the fundamentals are being forged and therefore still can be revised, chosen anew, and started from a blank slate.”
Indeed, to create something new, to start all over again, one must challenge the heroic traditions of art and exploration. And yet without a certain chutzpah and element of self-regard, would a trip like this—a search for new artistic frontiers that takes it cue from waning geographic ones—ever happen in the first place?