Antarctic speaks to Dunedin artist

Last updated 00:00 25/09/2007
WARWICK BLACKLER/The Marlborough Express
ICE ART: Dunedin artist and poet Claire Beynon is exhibiting the artwork she produced following an Antarctic expedition with a scientific research team. The exhibition is titled Where There is Ice, There is Music, and is showing at the Diversion Gallery.

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The barren mass of ice called Antarctica has a voice.

Dunedin artist and poet Claire Beynon discovered that voice when she visited Antarctica with an American scientific research team, and her discovery has culminated in a series of artworks on show at the Diversion Gallery, called Where There Is Ice, There Is Music.

Claire says she happened upon the trip to Antarctica when she met New York scientist Dr Sam Bowser, who was staying at the same bed and breakfast accommodation as Claire on his way back from a research expedition in Antarctica more than five years ago.

Claire expressed her interest in visiting the continent and Sam says he remembered her when he needed to fill vacancies for his next research trip in 2005.

"I basically needed six members on the team, and I thought Claire would be great for this one-off job.

"After doing this for a while you begin to see qualities in people and I saw those qualities in Claire," Sam says.

Claire's passage to the ice continent wasn't simply as a travel companion; she was an integral part of the team, and learned several skills in order to be a field assistant.

The group was there to study foraminifera, single-celled organisms that dwell on the ocean floor of McMurdo Sound, Explorers Cove in particular.

Claire says the beauty of these organisms under the microscope was breathtaking.

"It was absolutely remarkable, they were so delicate and complex."

Prior to the expedition she had very little knowledge about survival in sub-zero temperatures.

"I had no idea. If I had been left to fend for myself I probably would have been wearing cotton," she laughs.

Instead the team was issued with specific gear to combat the freezing temperatures, and she says it made all the difference.

"When we arrived it was minus 34 degrees Celsius, but that wasn't the worst."

Claire recalls the snow training camp she had to complete before she could work at the field station. They were sent out to learn how to handle their equipment and build snow shelters in blizzards, as well as learning first aid for hypothermia and frostbite.

The group encountered strong winds and a wind chill factor of minus 89 degrees Celsius that night. Sam says it was some of the worst conditions he has seen during his time on the ice.

"In hindsight they were very lucky to come out okay," he says.

Although her space for personal belongings in her luggage was limited, Claire managed to squeeze in a camera and a few art essentials to capture the ethereal world around her.

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During her two-month tenure, Claire immersed herself in the temperamental yet beautiful continent, exploring its vastness and also its tiny organisms.

"They way the macrocosm is juxtaposed with the microcosm, that really appealed to me," she says.

Because it was light 24 hours a day, Claire says she would sometimes take walks at 3am.

"I really had to re-train myself to sleep and eat at normal times," she says.

But the endless light also afforded her dramatic landscapes at different hours of the day.

"People think Antarctica is white, but it's not. The colour emerges slowly. You get these rich and vibrant violets and then the palest pinks.

"At certain times when the light dipped low it was so lurid, it was stunning."

Claire says she took thousands of photos, and battled constantly with the cold when she took off her layers of gloves in order to take a photo.

"I think I learned that Antarctica is powerful. You submit to it. If you listen to the silence, you can hear her groaning and whispering."

The sound isn't obvious, Claire says. However, survival is sometimes dependent on the sounds in the ice.

"We learned where to walk by listening for the cracking in the ice. There is a constant noise, a beautiful harmony of sounds the ice makes together with the wind."

Claire also created a series of poems about the expedition and, coupled with her artwork, she attempts to capture the grandeur, the symphony and the fragility of Antarctica.

Her poems are contained within a limited edition book called Open Book.

The poems are coupled with striking black and white reprints of her artwork, and Claire says she wanted the book to present a continuous narrative, like a journal.

The book was launched at the exhibition's opening last Monday night.

Most of the works are pastel on paper, with sweeping broad strokes enigmatically recreating the vastness and colour of the continent.

These works contrast with her intricate recreations of the organisms the research group studied.

The abstract piece This Fragile Earth I speaks of life in the eye of a microscope, with delicate striations of organisms and intricate passage ays uniting in a thing of beauty.

Claire hopes to return with the same research group on another Antarctic trip next year.

"This experience has profoundly influenced my work in ways I never thought possible. I would love to return."

  • Where There Is Ice, There Is Music, an exhibition of artwork by Claire Beynon is on at the Diversion Gallery at Grove Mill Winery until November 12.

    - The Marlborough Express

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