’44′

[from the book Going Nowhere - for further essays by Alain de Botton, Robert Macfarlane & Philip Hoare you can purchase the book from FVU]

 

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they
found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles
and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew
would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought
us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!” [1]

There are certain kinds of journeys best served with an empty page for guidance. Whether spilling over with detail or ‘perfect and absolute blanks’, maps are created through a speculative process involving both imagination and reason. They are made by history and simultaneously make history through narratives of power, fiction and ideology.

Maps and charts are not there to represent – rather their purpose is to indicate how places relate to each other. They are metaphors for reality. To be accurate, as Borges recounts in On Exactitude in Science [2], a map would need to represent every detail of the whole world in 1:1 scale – a size so unwieldy it would be impracticable. To understand a map one must suspend disbelief, putting to one side the larger picture in order to make sense of the immediate area awaiting navigation. To do this a map requires an agreed set of recognisable points to communicate how to reach one place from another. In the case of the sea its expanse is defined though negative space – with the shore, islands, rocks, sandbanks and soundings defining the limits. In early charts landmarks and buildings viewable from the sea were added as markers on blank parts of the sheets. These sketches were not just for navigational purposes – they showed the skill of the draughtsman, providing relief from drawing expanses of largely nothing.

In 2004 Simon Faithfull embarked on a journey across the sea to a place that is no place: the South Pole. Travelling on the RSS Ernest Shackleton with the British Antarctic Survey taking scientists, supplies and an artist to and from Antarctica, he charted his way using subjective and objective means. Each day the artist produced drawings using a palm pilot to provide a subjective picture of the micro-society of this ship – a world of frying sausages, late night drinking, social class stereotyping, card games and fancy dress. Perhaps like the early sea charters’ sketches, these drawings, and the activities depicted in them, provided relief from a long journey to the coldest place in the world. Faithfull’s objective description took the porthole of his cabin as an autonomous viewing device through which the world outside this false comfort was filmed. The result, the hypnotic film 44, is a document of fact, yet perception of it cannot operate without speculative subjectivity, such is the incomprehensibility of this unmediated direct experience.

44 narrates a journey to and from a continent declared politically neutral and legislated free of military activity at the height of the Cold War. Here scientists drill into the ice to study a perfect capsule of frozen time and watch with the naked eye the impact of global warming. Ground and sky blend seamlessly into each other. It took until the second half of the 1800s to map the limits of this desert-continent’s coastline, with the first failed journey from the sea to the pole not attempted until 1901.This is a place with no permanent human population, with no government, where failures abound and on to which, not unlike the sea, writers project their imagination. It is, though, suffused with paradoxes. Radiating out from this southernmost tip of the world, nations have staked out territory. When lines are hard to draw they become abstract and confusion occurs. Here, somehow, Argentina, Chile and Britain came to claim the same section. Faithfull describes how in an attempt ‘to bolster their territorial claim, Argentina flew in a pregnant woman to give birth on their base. The Chileans responded by bringing several couples to live, conceive and have children – and the British opened a post office.’ On arriving at the British Antarctic base, Faithfull ‘perhaps in a misguided quest for normality,’ got the postmaster (who is also the base commander) to open up the post-office. ‘Housed in a metal trunk beneath his desk, I bought postcards of an ice-encrusted base beneath an aurora sky and stamps featuring a silhouetted Queen’s head floating above an ice-shelf.’ [3] The postcards were written, stamped, postmarked and mailed to their recipients. They would leave on the next boat leaving Antarctica – the very one the artist himself would be travelling. Such signs of insignificant familiarity abound in this place. In a place where there is no ‘there’ there, such inauspicious gestures bring calibration to the unknown.

In some moments 44 shows light bouncing between the water and the sky,creating a white glare on the underside of low clouds. This indicates the presence of ice beyond the range of vision. Spotlights, radar and binoculars seeking invisible temporary ice-islands constantly scan from the bridge of the ship – charts of icebergs are impossible as they constantly mutate. Other times 44 shows the sea as solid, soon to be incised by the ice-strengthened ship that, perversely, became less stable when cutting through the sea. Designed to counter resistance,with none the vessel contorts through strange motions that defy gravity – making people fall into heaps against the wall while drinking beer; or making paintings hang off the walls at 30 degrees, while the porthole becomes filled with white surf as the ship lurches on to its next wave. Faithfull’s porthole indiscriminately collects views, collapsing time and space into an endless looping unbelievable landscape. Over 44 minutes the light moves through 44 varied shades of blue and white. In his journals he notes how in the iceberg fields ‘the colours look like someone has messed with the RGB settings in your eyes. They vary in size from a small crofter’s cottage bobbing though the swell to huge slabs of 8 stories high South London housing estates. Some were standard snow white, some smaller bits are see-through (like huge lumps of ice from the fridge), and then there are the blue ones that seem to be glowing from the inside with a weird synthetic blue light. They vary from off-white Styrofoam blue to a sullen brooding dark-blue; lurking with 90% below the surface.’[4]

Just like the unremarkable activities on board, Faithfull’s choices of familiar references seek to make sense of the inarticulable strangeness of this journey. 44 presents a logical representation, yet it is one that defies what is imaginably real. This process initiates an alternative metaphorical structure firmly pointing to the space between here and elsewhere, constructing an artwork that is dependent on the unavoidable speculation that fills the space between what is perceived in and by this empirical document. Although an objective description, the lunar landscapes of 44 seem the futuristic fantasy of a now obsolete science fiction, with the ship maintaining life where it cannot naturally exist. There is one fleeting moment, though, when a bird rushes past the porthole – a sharp cut through to reality in this mesmerising rhythm. The markers here are all temporary, constantly mutating. These 44 minutes are repetitive, endless and, like the continent of Antarctica itself, a hole in reality that can only be filled with the imagination.

[1]
Lewis Carroll, from Fit the Second:
the Bellman’s Speech in ‘The Hunting
of the Snark:An Agony in Eight
Fits’ (1874) London: Penguin 2006

[2]
Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in
Science (1946) in ‘The Aleph’,
Andrew Hurley (trans.) London:
Penguin 1998

[3]
Simon Faithfull, diary entry 28th
December: Halley Research Station
Latitude:s.75°35, Longitude:w.026°39
in Ice Blink:An Antarctic Essay, Lisa
Le Feuvre (ed.), London:The Arts
Catalyst / Bookworks 2006

[4]
Simon Faithfull, diary entry 4th
December: Signy Island Latitude:
s.60°72, Longitude: w.045°62 in
Ice Blink: An Antarctic Essay, Lisa
Le Feuvre (ed.), London:The Arts
Catalyst / Bookworks 2006