48 hours of constant rocking across the Drake passage, eyes closed, body yielding,mind quiet. Nothing familiar, no structure, no handrails, no roadsigns. These two days were followed by land excursions, our first hours and days of experiencing Antarctica. Moving across the untouched landscape, eyes wide open, gliding along the white surfaces dotted by unfamiliar sights of penguins, seals, ocean swells, icebergs floating. I was acutely aware that, although I was off the water, I was still not on firm land. Everything felt sligthly slippery to me. The glacier underneath me is moving, albeit in geological time, sped up by global warming. I am learning to live in this place of the non familiar, where non of my references that anywhere else in the world would give structure to my day, my thinking, my interactions, are relevant. The glacier with its hidden crevasses told us where to go and not to go, the wind and quick weather changes told us when to get off the land and return to the ship and all the time my eyes would scan and glide and ultimately soften as they got used to the fact that there was nothing familiar in my visual field I could hook into and find traction on.
On the third day I was jolted out of this soft foggy and fluid way of gliding on the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding waters. The sky was crystal blue. The wind was quiet. Einar, our guide, had recruited Hadleigh, the Australian ship historian and zodiac driver, to show us the area that was known for its history of whaling. The zodiac, powered by its 60 ccm four stroke Yamaha outboard motor, cut through the glassy waters and iceberg landscape and wasn't deterred by dense fields of small floating clumps of ice. Once we arrived in an ice free cove, Hadleigh told us to look for whalebones on the ocean ground. The water wasn't deep. It was flat and crystal clear which made whalebone searching relatively easy. He also told us about a shipwreck and we made our way toward it.
Wilhelmina Bay, former whaling territory
It was this sight that jolted me out of my disoriented and fluid state of mind:
A perfectly square rusty metal cube in the middle of nowhere and nothingness. Richard Serra!!! I heard myself exclaim loudly in my mind yet silent to the outside. Where did this come from? After one week of travel and 4 days of disorienting newness and nothingness I get a jolt, feel my synapses fire like a turbo motor because I see a metal box and my brain gives me "Richard Serra"?
Hadleigh tells me that the box holds supplies left by the whalers in the early 1900s. The European whalers left it there for their anticipated return the following season. The 100 year old box is untouched, I can't even see a lock or potential opening. In my eyes it's a sculpture. A site-specific sculpture that was perfectly placed on this island. Not too close to the water and nor too far inland. I feel quite certain that the whalers didn't give any thought to the aesthetic consequences of the placement. I am convinced though that they did carefully consider the safest place, preventing the box to be carried away by ice, yet accessible enough avoiding a treacherous, time consuming and potentially dangerous hike to reach the supplies. This cube reminded me that the notion of form following function does work both for function and form.
Hadleigh steered the zodiac toward the shipwreck that was resting in a protected cove in Wilhelmina Bay since the early 1900s when it caught on fire. My mind was still fired up by the connection of rusty whaling supply and Richard Serra sculptures. I suddenly found myself able to take photos when the past days, until now, I was almost paralyzed by the disorienting unfamiliar landscapes and hardly could find a way to engage with my camera. Where to look, what to remember? Even the light was different than anything I knew or my camera understood. It wasn't dark, not at all, but it wasn't sunny either. I would occasionally fumble with my camera trying out different settings not finding a fitting one. Now, with the rusty remnants of civilization contrasted against a clear blue sky and an otherwise untouched landscape, I was able to orient my mind and hence my camera with this clear reference to a contemporary site-specific working artist I hadn't thought of in decades.
I learned later that Richard Serra's sculptures were inspired by his father's work in a shipyard and his own work in a metal shop.
Later in the week: Practicing belaying techniques between the lamp and the closet door while waiting for the storm to clear.
This is how it works: Crevasse rescue and my mind.
So this is how my mind works: scan scan scan until it finds a ridge, a lip, a hook, something that triggers my synapses to fire, that allows for connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar in order to make meaning, ultimately creating a structure that lends traction and stops the fall. This reminds me of the intro lesson Einar taught Maxine and myself in belaying and crevasse rescue. A few days after the bright blue sky day, while waiting on board for a storm to clear, we practiced how to connect ropes to people and landscape, or rather cabin furnishings. We learned how to configure pulley systems to take off weight and use the laws of physics in a way that would allow us to ultimately pull our own weight or somebody else's out of deep crevasses. While tying knots and connecting ropes and carabiners in our small cabin, I quickly learned that in order for these techniques to actually work out in the field, I needed to practice each step and each knot about 1000 times and then some. I believe, that for anything to be usefully applied outside of the classroom, we need to know it, whatever it is, in our deepest gyri of our brains and every single fiber of our body. The knowledge and experience needs to be grown in to us, deeply connected, in order to create a reliable hook, a non-wavering anchor.
Richard Serra's cubes "Equal" were installed at the MOMA this past week
This popped up on my Instagram feed a few days ago.
Hence, it doesn't surprise me that my brain hooked into Richard Serra here at the end of the world where nothing else would give me hold or traction. He had stopped my fall before. I first encountered Richard Serra in Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart with its orderly structure and historic buildings also was bold enough to temporarily place oversized metal sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra in the middle of the historic city center between buildings of the baroque castle and the 1970s shopping street. In this busy place, everybody had to navigate around these metal pieces that dwarfed the grand architecture of the city's imperial past and deeply disrupted its idyllic order. During the time of the exhibit I was a student in Stuttgart. I was in a foggy and disoriented place in my life, desperately searching for traction and a place to hook in, to make sense of my experiences, to stop my figurative fall.
Just like seeing the metal cube in Wilhelmina Bay in Antarctica, Richard Serra's metal arch did that. Even then, these rusty metal sculptures seemed strangely familiar. I felt at ease and safe with these oversized metal arches and lines guiding my movement away from the logical utilitarian path. I was then equally surprised as I am now. Richard Serra? Bigger than life rough undecorated metal pieces amidst traditional order and decorative classical beauty? A rusty oversized arch blocking my way would be my pulley system, would allow me to connect dots, make meaning and stop my fall? Why did these big bulky shapes that were intended to disrupt give me support and peace? Maybe these man made metal pieces weren't so different from rocks and ledges created by nature creating paths that are never only straight and never only logical and yet meaningful. I had to come all the way to Antarctica to remember what was so deeply familiar and yet forgotten.