Campus Galleries News & Events

The Power of Seeing: Artists Seek to Represent Antarctica

Joyce Campbell, Anne Noble and Connie Samaras each stole a bed away from a scientist in Antarctica in the name of cultural production. Or at least, that is how many scientists saw it. Noble explained how the entire continent is devoted to science, and art is not seen the same way, despite the fact that both are rooted in observation.

“There is this idea that art just falls out of our fingertips,” Samaras said. “Scientists consider failure an integral part of research. Artists are conditioned to see failure as a fall from grace.”

Campbell and Noble traveled to Antarctica through New Zealand fellowship programs, whereas Samaras was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Campbell and Noble said the expectation is that the artists arrive, become overwhelmed and inspired for two weeks, then return home and majestically create. The limitations on the photographers were numerous, from white out days, in which the world appears to be a blanket of white, to winds preventing the helicopter from leaving. All of these obstacles increased the already enormous pressure to produce.

Each artist brought with her a personal perspective and mental photographic reality constructed of what Antarctica would look like. Each hoped to challenge the romantic heroism so often associated with the extreme South Pole. The artists looked at how to represent observation, attempting to capture the essence of the overwhelming landscape that a mere 10,000 people have seen since its discovery.

Campbell approached her work from a sculptural background, and used handmade, person-sized prints because they required a physical involvement in development, all of which were designed to bring the visceral experience to her audience. The driving question in Noble's work was how a person comes to know a landscape through the photographic medium. Samaras' political perspective of the land showed how the world can be turned upside down by a trick of the light, a failure of the eyes.

Campbell connected her work to issues of environmental sustainability, and found Antarctica a logical place to approach the climactic system. She strove to “harness the language of the nineteenthcentury painting epitomized by Antarctica.” On her last day, Campbell stumbled across an anthropomorphic skull emerging from the ice that embodied her terror of what humankind is doing to the earth.

“The screaming ghoul figure was highly emotive, almost brashly terrifying,” Campbell said. The harsh environment allowed her to face mortality in a general sense—of herself, the species, and the entire world— and was somehow able to be invigorated by the experience.

Noble's approach was more structural, and sought to challenge the preconceived expectations of her audience. She considered the role of context in perception, in which without a scale to compare, the observer is prevented from really seeing. Noble welcomed the white out days, and waited until she could see very little to begin photographing. Observing at that point “became this long sustained poem of seeing,” Noble said.

Samaras battled “photo chatter,” and the realization of the emotional impact the experience had on her, in addition to the expected physical one.

“You get a hint of something so large, so much more than our puny eyes can perceive that one runs scared for the tiny heated hut of the ego,” Samaras wrote in her journal. “It was really hard to see. I couldn’t see anything because I could see everything.”

The three artists' work gives their audience an opportunity to see observation, perception and representation challenged. As Samaras explained, there is no panorama, “No matter how many pictures are strung together with the same sight line, they would never equal the power of seeing there.”

—JESSICA SCHWARTZ '08