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South Georgia Island

"…in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had 'suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’  We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” Sir Ernest Shackleton, (1874-1922), describing the end of the crossing of South Georgia Island.

Reading Shackleton’s account of his arrival at South Georgia Island, it is perhaps unsurprising that artists and adventurers might still be attracted to the icy climes of this remote location deep in the Southern Ocean. For artists Martin King, Mike Nicholls and Mitchell McAuley, the chance to travel via yacht, along with fellow photographic artist and expedition leader Jay Watson, to South Georgia Island was at once an opportunity to engross themselves in an entirely foreign environment and to record the stunning scenery afforded them. As each artist has a history of engagement with the Australian landscape, having immersed themselves in the nuances of the continent from the bush-fired forests of Southern Victoria to the arid deserts of the interior, the challenge was not only one of travel but involved exchanging the familiar for the unfamiliar. In this new environment, each responded with works unlike anything they had previously produced. For Martin King, the solid forms of floating ice replaced delicate ochre-tinged patterns, gleaned from journeys to the centre of Australia. Mitchell McAuley’s abstraction gave way to carefully detailed studies, faithfully capturing the rustic architecture and towering glaciers of the island, while Mike Nicholls’ small-scale works on paper journey between day-to-day observations of the island to the nocturnal splendour of the ocean at night.

Martin King has long been interested in the minutiae of aerial landscapes, yet these new ice-scapes highlight a terrain that is neither land nor water. Noted for its delicate and pattern-like effect, ‘frizal-ice’ floats in fragmented sheets on the surface of the ocean. For King the alchemical mingling of elements - whether in the guise of rain and earth or ice and sea - is a major thematic concern. With their focus on melting ice, paintings such as Drift I, 2006, invite us also to consider the human contribution to the global environment. Like many who travel to Antarctica, King is all too aware of the fragility of the region, acknowledging that what he records may soon be something viewed solely in the history books. In works of a more immediate nature, King’s free-hand depictions of sea birds in flight seem almost photographic in quality. These reductive silhouetted creatures flicker across the canvas like stills from a moving image. Executed with thinly diluted pigments, the paintings evoke both the calligraphic mark making of a naturalist’s field-recordings and the sequential rhythms of slow-motion film.

In contrast, Mitchell McAuley, in works such as Church, 2006 and Grytviken Whale Station, 2006, articulates the disparity between human habitation, signified through the solitary structures at the centre of each canvas, and the rugged landscape which surrounds them. In the painting Church, McAuley’s black-roofed chapel, which is located beneath a colossal glacial mountain, seems both a poignant reminder of the island’s history and a strangely diminutive invocation of the divine. In contrast the blood red structure at the centre of Grytviken Whale Station, recalls the deathly industry for which the island is famous. In Larson Harbour, 2006, an icy expanse remains untrammelled by architectural or industrial motifs. Consequently we are left to wonder whether the image is of mountainous slopes and cloudless sky or possibly an aerial view in which the icy harbour displaces a clear blue firmament. While the work captures the pristine elegance of a frozen wilderness, McAuley’s inclination towards a dissolution of the literal imparts the disquieting sense of being simultaneously consumed and disoriented by nature. Through engaging this universal theme, the artist evokes also the nightmarish trepidation that gripped many an Antarctic explorer.

In the works of Mike Nicholls, vastness of scale is addressed through a series of diminutive pastels, which, despite their constrained proportions, convey clearly the grandeur of both the island and surrounding sea. Produced en plein air, Nicholls’ work gives a real sense of ‘being there’. The nightscapes are dark yet luminous, while the artist’s casual, draftsman-like confidence belies a gothic sensibility. In each vignette, one senses also that an unseen or perhaps unspoken narrative waits to be told. In Ocean Harbour 3am, 2006, the forbidding Southern Ocean is revealed in shades of blacks, greys and white. Resulting from a sleepless night aboard ship, it is difficult not to sense the rocking of the boat at anchor and the lonely chill of the polar wind. In other works delicate mosses, penguin colonies and snow-covered rocks are contrasted with the colossal and rusting hulks of beached and abandoned ships. Recorded in the manner of a diarist, Nicholls’ observations are direct and to the point, providing a lively account of the island’s diverse features, whilst loosing nothing of the poetic touch. Like McAuley, Nicholls focuses also on the rusting storage tanks dominating the Grytviken whaling station. Devoid of human presence, the images convey something of the profligacy of an industry that is now all but abandoned.

Entranced by the beauty of South Georgia Island, in his photos Jay Watson reveals the location’s remarkably variegated colours, marking this as a far from monotonous landscape. Shifting from natural and man-made surfaces to towering mountains and ice cliffs, Watson’s images are concerned with both macrocosm and microcosm. As an inveterate Antarctic adventurer, Watson’s passion for the region is especially evident. One senses that for this artist the island is a place of absolute familiarity; an environment that can be patiently observed, digested and recorded. Inspired also by the work of legendary Antarctic photographer Frank Hurley, Watson’s photos echo the formal precision of Hurley’s iconic imagery. Importantly, the compositional elements of Watson’s photos – especially his wide-angel landscape shots - apportion a sense of scale to the island’s otherwise all-consuming spaciousness. In other works the photographer offers an intimate view of the island’s settlements, focusing on the abandoned huts and rowing boats that can still be found there today; while in another image, anonymous graves marked by simple wooden crosses are a reminder of the men who ended their days on the island.

This journey to South Georgia Island has engendered in each artist both a reverence for its natural beauty, but also an acute awareness of a particular theme that seems to linger in the location – that is a consciousness of the transience of existence. In global terms projects such as these are by no means mere moments of tourism but look to issues of particular relevance today. What artists show us is often more than science can reveal and in the history and topography of South Georgia Island, these artists have gleaned what might indeed be the future for us all. 

Damian Smith

CURATOR, May 2006

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