Until May 14; Stills Gallery, Edinburgh
During the Christmas holidays in 2004 I received a daily postcard from Antarctica. I had signed up to receive, by e-mail, a little drawing every day from Simon Faithfull’s residency with the British Antarctic Survey. The spidery lines, recorded on a palm pilot, fought with blocky pixels to convey the artist’s daily discoveries.
As the pictures began to drop into my inbox, I lived through the mundane reality of airports and aeroplanes from Brize Norton to the Falkland Isles, followed by boats, and people stuck on boats, and birds seen from boats. As the artist crept towards Antarctica, I wondered how his shaky little line drawings would manage to cope with the vast uninterrupted infinity of white. I thought of those corny old cartoons, where a blank sheet of paper would be captioned “polar bear in his tennis whites on a snowy day”.
Finally, a month into the expedition and two days before Christmas, Faithfull got his first sight of Antarctica. “Strange thing,” he wrote in his diary, “from a distance the ice cliffs of Antarctica looked vaguely like the low chalk cliffs of Ramsgate”. Once he landed, the landscape disappeared. “Pure, undiluted ‘nothing’ as far as the eye can see,” he wrote on Christmas Eve, “Except that I have no way of gauging how far my eyes are seeing”.
Faithfull resorted to drawing equipment, the occasional animal, and scientists at work and play. The images, now etched on plastic and hanging at Stills Gallery, don’t really convey the sense of space, or the blinding light, of Antarctica, but they record the restless attempts of a human being to anchor himself in space and time.
It’s sublime, and yet it’s not. A 19th century Romantic painter would have created a huge canvas out of this, the craggy cliffs of ice dwarfing the vulnerable stick-figure of a man, with nothing but a walking stick and a top hat to protect him. The images, video and text in this exhibition are all just a bit too intimate, a bit too mundane, to allow us to indulge in such awe-inspired fantasies.
The gallery reverberates to the sound of the ice-breaker, RSS Ernest Shackleton, ploughing its way through ice. The video shows the prow of the ship steaming relentlessly through ice-floes, the landscape submitting to the machine. Another video records the changing views as seen through a single porthole. As with the drawings and the diaries, we share the slow passing of time in this journey. We’re stuck inside a brute of an ice-breaking machine, not out there, tumbling through the plunging waves, where a Romantic painter would choose to put us.
A further, jaw-dropping, video gives us a peek inside a post-apocalyptic terrain; an abandoned whaling station in South Georgia whose only inhabitants are a colony of aggressive seals. The snow blows through the windows of houses and factories. Chairs, tables and beds are the property of lumbering lumps of blubber who look you in the eye. Wind whips against the microphone and driving snow slithers down the lens.
Although this video awakens thoughts of climate change, and a world where all the humans are dead and gone, it’s balanced by a playful freedom in other works. In his photographic self-portrait, the artist appears to be clinging onto the bottom of the world, and in his two Escape Vehicle videos, an empty orange snow suit crawls along the ground, buoyed by a balloon which will eventually take off and fly into the never-ending whiteness. It gets smaller and smaller, and then it’s gone. In that space just beyond vision, Faithfull finds the sublime.