In June I spent three weeks in the high Arctic as an artist in residence with The Arctic Circle program. Our group of artists, writers, and crew sailed on a barquentine tall ship in the international territory of Svalbard, an archipelago near the North Pole, which lies between Greenland and Franz Josef Land.
The landscape is a polar wilderness of permafrost, glaciers, moss-dotted mountains and rocky moraines jutting out over deep fjords. The seas are scattered with icebergs that have broken off the faces of glaciers that send off cracks of muffled thunder. The sun never sets in summer and never rises in the winter. During our time there it circled the sky like a clock running counter-clockwise: North around midnight, South about noon. In the winter snows, you can see by the moon.
The oldest evidence of human activity in Svalbard are whaling sites from the 17th century. No indigenous people claim the islands. Two thousand people live in the port town of Longyearbyen (“Long Year City”) and a few dozen scientists live year-round at Ny Åledund, the northernmost settlement in the world. Mainly, the islands are home to some of the toughest plants and animals in the world which, in this most remote of places so inhospitable to human life, are among the first we are endangering with the effects of global warming.
During our expedition I printed a series of cyanotypes. These “blue prints” or “sun prints” are an early form of photography, made using paper treated with a chemical solution that is sensitive to UV light. The cyanotype process was famously used in 1843 by Anna Atkins, a botanist and the first-known woman photographer, whose book on British algae was the first to be illustrated with photographic images: cyanotypes printed directly from her specimen.
The following was taken from the travel journal I wrote for the people who funded my project:
June 10: Flight to Longyearbyen
[Notes recorded over the fjords near Trømso.]
Mountains cut with deep long lakes, thin snow caps, and naked-looking brown rock. Glaciers are the same but steeper, bluer in the water, taller, snow that looks like someone took the lands above the tree line and spun them. And at the beaches on the inlets—a pale, tropical-looking blue. If I had not seen it, I would not ask you to believe it.
You can easily imagine the ocean draining away down the earth. The shape of the water just reveals the evidence of the land. The clouds look like pictures of icebergs. It is impossible to tell our scale. Earlier, departing the runway in Oslo, the sunlight on the wing looked just like the sun.
What is happening to our position under the sun? I try to work this out with a drawing. Realize I have forgotten all my erasers in Madison.
LANDING. Sun over the airport and a rainbow on the water. Trickling water from the foothills to the runway.
The stratas in view from the bus into town:
the road, the shore, the bay, the mountains, the clouds
I remember my first bird in Svalbard. And after the first, too many to number.
Our group meets at the Karlburger’s Pub. It is totally dark, built inside the mall, the back of the bar a wall of bottles, famous for its whiskey selection. (“The fourth best bar in the world!”) I try to order a dirty martini. Stephen the bartender tells me plainly he hates mixing drinks. I order some kind of barrel-aged gin from Sweden in a glass.
We leave into daylight. It is extremely jarring, like going to the theater in the afternoon and the movie was shot inside a coalmine and then you all go out into white-hot sun and have a pleasant lunch. Except in our case, it’s the middle of the night and we’re up too late and the walk back is 30 more minutes up hill. Now the sun is in the north. Inside our room, the light is ruthless and seizes every crack in the shades.
It is late at night; time for bed. The thing about the time here: You have to tell yourself something about it.
June 12: Eve of Departure on the Antigua
Z! and Alex e-mail me about the shooting in Orlando. 50 killed, 50 injured. Latino night. Trans women of color performing. I go out onto the fire escape. Cry. With my mouth open, facing the mountain, there in the corner of the balcony in socks. Tiny flocks of birds are flying over the mountain which is melting and which came from a star and will turn into another one. The world is one place. The world is one place.
June 13: Day of departure. Arrival at Ymerbukta
After dinner we approach our first glacier: It looks hazy. Soft. Close. The clear blue sky above it looks closer. It takes so much longer than you think to get there, then you look back and you’re so much closer than you thought.
At one point we ask our guide Kristin, How far away are we? She points to an outcropping of rocks that look to be at the base of the glacier, far off in the distance. You see that line of rocks? When we reach that, we will be halfway to the glacier.
June 16: Drawing
Afternoon: Landing at the so-called Lloyd’s Hotel. A bright orange wooden shack like a beacon up on a cliff above the beach.
I go out to draw. I have brought everything. Away from where we landed, up over the crest of the hill, is another body of water and beyond this a glacier, sitting low between two mountains. I am fully aware of the futility of my attempting to draw this, or any Arctic landscape. Too big. Too blank. Too far away, the closer I am.
I suspect this problem has something to do with scale. My scale.
I lay on my stomach where a cluster of flowers are growing out of the gravel. I frame this behind the rock that shadows them. I sketch the flowers. Focus intently on the angle of each petal. These are the ends of Svalbard so far: The mountain peak. The tiniest flower.
The drawing is pretty terrible.
I draw from memory a picture that is both the landing at Yrmabukta and a map of our walk there. This turns out okay.
For the first time I wonder if I am feeling discouraged. Rushed. So far it has felt as though time is running exactly at the rate it should.
After dinner Sarah comes in to announce a first for The Arctic Circle program, and for many on the Antigua: We have sailed to 80º N! And will continue on sail for the rest of the night.
On June 18 we reached the pack ice at 81º N—the edge of the frozen sea that forms the cap of the North Pole. An incredible day. I collect pieces of the ice, with some idea I can print them.
June 18: Printing
At the end of the night I tell Sarah I’m worried my ice will melt before morning. But it’s overcast—I have no idea how to print now. She says, Don’t wait! Do it now, go now!
I have paper ready. I place it in the tray, with plexiglass on top to protect it. There is a light snow coming down and moisture in the air that will create bright white spots on the image.
I try to think. I hold a piece of pack ice in my hands as still as I can on top of the plex. Shouldn’t this create at least some kind of shadow? The ice slips around. Will the shadow just be blurred? How long will this take? I can see the paper changing color—no shadow, but then again, I can’t see well. What am I even looking for?
I give it more time. Exposure is at 20 minutes now. Jana comes out, looking skeptical. Sascha comes out and raises an eyebrow: What are you doing? Will that work? I really don’t know. Fritz comes out and wonders why I’m using plex. Couldn’t I just put the ice on the paper? I tell him the limitations, as I see them: You only use water at the end. He asks what would happen if it got wet now? You would prematurely develop the solution. He says, Might be a cool effect, and goes inside.
I try a few more. I wrap the top of the ice in a towel, to better apply pressure with my hands without freezing. The ice starts melting down the face of the plex. I become aware that I am in the midst of failure and have no better idea but to see it through. Inside, everyone has gone to bed. Alex is baking the bread for breakfast. Jana tells me, You’re trying to get blue fingers! I ask for a jug of water and wash the prints out on the deck. At least I will see the results in an instant—either an image, or a solid blue.
June 19: Printing continued
The prints washed out because they were underexposed. That’s the only reason, or at least the best one, why the water ran green instead of blue and no image held. So, the missing piece is time.
I listen to Fritz. The ice, where it touches the paper, will imprint itself in immediate white. The water, which melts off, should also print—perhaps very differently—along with the ice’s shadow over the dry parts of the paper. I begin, knowing that of course this was the way to begin. I give it a full 60 minutes, ten times the exposure on Lake Monona last winter.
I spend the day editioning the pack ice.
June 21: Glad Midsommar!
Several in our group have talked about the meaning in landscapes. The value of objects, of things in nature. It occurs to me: The land here has no meaning; it even resists meaning. This is the most surprising thing so far.
On our landing I collect more glacier ice for printing. Fine ice—jagged pieces that Sascha says look like beehives. Smooth little pieces resembling coral.
Later: A bonfire on the beach. Songs, swimming, the ice in our drinks.
June 22: BEAR
I spend the morning printing more of the glacier. After lunch, our guide Marry Kristin comes and says: “Everyone, please remain very calm. We have spotted a bear. We have to remain very quiet on deck.”
Rushing in silence. Everyone out. Those who have them pass around binoculars. At first, a tiny movement which my brain only tells me I see as white. We approach closer. The bear is walking on a small rocky island with not much space on its shores before it rises into sheer, high cliffs. He (Kristin confirms it’s a male) is circling the island in a clockwise direction. In the ship we follow very slowly. I ask Kristin if he’s aware of us. He spotted us long before we spotted him.
Walking, their long necks take on the life of a fifth limb, loping around like one of their legs, casting about for smells the way the others find footing on the rocks. He walks carefully but steadily, which carries with it a kind of speed, although our bear is quite unhurried. He walks like he has walked here before.
Our bear is skinny. Most likely too skinny to survive the year. His fur hangs loose from his bones like a heavy piece of laundry. It is midsummer and he should be fat from the winter, which is when polar bears do their real hunting: eating the seals that live on the ice. On this land, our bear will struggle for food. There are only birds here, and these are nested out of reach.
We are thrilled to be seeing a bear until we see this one, walking around with his death. Up close we stop seeing him and find ourselves witnessing. This is what happens when seeing becomes stricken, pursued with the dedication produced by this hardest kind of watching: Seeing and unable to look away, watching and unable to preserve. Anguish at watching from the safety of a ship the largest predator on any land, shrinking from within his own body as he stalks and stalks and stalks the shore, maybe only heightens the impotence inherent in all seeing, in all witness.
July 1: Last day in Svalbard
A walk to the church along the stream. It looks polluted: grayish brown, thick with sediment, like sludge. It is totally pure: water and minerals, washing down from the snow melt on the mountains. An industrial wasteland where the product is rocks; where the capital is time.
I am preoccupied by thoughts of home; news of more police violence in Madison. Depart 1:00 p.m. from Longyearbyen airport.
July 2: Arrival in Hamburg
I sleep on the flight over mainland Norway. I sleep on the flight to Copenhagen. I sleep on the overnight train to Hamburg. Outside it is the same blurry green and blue as it was in the evening, leaving the station. I walk. There’s a light rain. I take the hood of my jacket down and my head feels cool and wet like a beach stone. I sleep in the low light until ten thirty, until noon, until half past two.
What can I tell you about waking up in Germany? The dark isn’t real here. The trees aren’t either. A strong wind here only blows the window shut. The buildings are tall and close in like morphine: I can’t see the horizon, but I also don’t care. I can’t tell if what I’m hearing is the thunder or the train.
After dinner, before sunset: I play a livestream of the guillemots in Hornøya. The birds chatter on, their cries rising up in an urgent and mysterious crescendo. Outside a crowd sings while an anthem plays, coming up and over the birds. It’s the start of the Germany vs. Italy game. Every so often the shouts of the neighborhood reach across the open windows of the building facing mine and clasp together above the streets, straining in that singular mixture of angst and joy that accompany suspense and its painful relief. Jaaaaaaa! Aaaaaaaa! Ja, ah ahh!
At the peak of the drama the local birds shout back at the neighbors. They are followed by sirens and car horns and fireworks for the rest of the night, all of which can create its own chaotic rhythm of overlap, which can be coupled with the whining guillemot laughter on the cliffs at the sea where they, in turn, can be watched, unseen. I have gone to the Arctic, and the 21st century. The sun sets blue on the white, stone walls.
This project was funded by individual donors and the Madison Arts Commission, with additional support from the Wisconsin Arts Board.
You can see a selection of the cyanotypes from Svalbard this winter:
Anders Zanichkowsky & Eric Baillies
Overture Gallery III
December 13–March 5
Opening Reception: January 13, 6–8 p.m.
Artist Talk on Saturday, January 28 (time TBA)
For more images and writing visit: