Arctic Bench

From 25 September to 6 October 2008 I took part to an expedition to the Arctic of scientists and artists to raise awareness about climate change, organised by Cape Farewell, a London UK based organisation.

This is the story of a project that somehow failed and became something else. It is the story of a search for the perfect iceberg that never came, thus it is a story of expectation and disappointment, but also of hope and perseverance. In a way is a very human and real story.

One of my projects on board consisted of an artistic response to the melting and retreat of glaciers as result of climate change. My response was to place a park bench on a newly formed iceberg or floating ice-shelf off the fast-moving coast of West Greenland. A bench which, in its fragility and remoteness, becomes a silent witness of the dramatic changes that are occurring in the Arctic. A bench with nobody to sit on.

The brass plaque on the bench reads:
''Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza''
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto XXVI, v.118-120.
[Consider the seed from which you were generated; you were not made to live like brutes, but for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.] says Ulysses, narrating his thirst for discovery that took him out of the known seas of his times.

Key to the project, the bench would be tracked in its slow and inexorable pilgrimage through an Argos satellite device that will make it possible to locate it for months to come, through the unfamiliar frozen sea, the ever-changing scenery, the incoming uninterrupted nights.
The tracker was a fundamental part of the project, commenting on our contemporary surveillance society (and on my desire to follow it from distance).

The search for the perfect iceberg onto which place the bench started in the morning of 2 October when we left the Starvation Fiord. There were some suitable small icebergs in the fiord, but the shape of the long and narrow strip of sea meant that these would have probably stayed inside the fiord, trapped between the outward current and the inward tide, in a cyclical movement. So I took the risk of looking further for the perfect iceberg that would travel far away, across the sea, between islands and fiords. But the more we navigated away from the calm fiord, the more it became apparent that the weather was deteriorating and the strong wind was making it very difficult and dangerous to approach any iceberg with the Zodiacs.

At some point the excitement reached a peak when I found what looked like a suitable candidate, a funny shaped iceberg that looked incredibly different on its sides: a flat and welcoming beach, a rugged crocodile, a spaceship, a lavender field. It was perfect!

A Zodiac was launched in the water, with only passengers the bench and the satellite tracker (quite an absurd scene, I have to say!), to look for the best side to approach the iceberg. But the wind gained strength as we were approaching the frozen creature, and it became clear that we could not approach the iceberg or step on it. What a disappointment! What a disaster! Without giving up, we decided to sail on, further looking for the perfect iceberg (at this point the word 'perfect' was starting to be replaced by 'anything that would do') around the island of Upernivik Oe that is usually surrounded by icebergs of all sizes.

And in fact there were lots and lots of icebergs to choose from, but the wind was so strong that it would blow the bench off the iceberg in no time, making the approach to the iceberg particuraly dangerous. So the search went on, quickly becoming the search for a quieter corner of the bay where we could safely approach a small iceberg. The captain and many of the voyagers stayed with me on the bridge till dusk, looking out with their binoculars for the perfect iceberg in a calm area, investigating the rough sea surface with the boat's impressive search light. Only around 8pm we gave up this surreal search, knowing that from now on our planned route was going to take us away from the glaciers and icebergs, into the open sea. The search was over.

I was exhausted! But strangely also content. Content that I was not alone in this mad project, that the captain and the other voyagers supported me and tried to make it happen despite the apparent absurdity of the search.

At that point I started to feel that my project was gaining a different, and maybe stronger, meaning. It was the search that mattered, it was the effort, the determination, the non giving up at the first difficulty. Maybe the bench was an excuse and didn't need to be left out on the ice at all. I guess we are all here searching for something and the voyage has been so incredibly intense, challenging and emotional, that has probably made the search even more urgent.

To me the Arctic bench stands for an exploration that was initially conceptual and philosophical, then turned real, scarily real, and became failure when faced the strength of nature and the limitations of our efforts. But failure is real, is human, it is part of life, so I accept it.

But acceptance does not mean resignation and I am already looking for other ways to realise this ambitious project. So keep watching this space for new developments!

Photographs credits: Nathan Gallagher and Francesca Galeazzi

Special thanks to CLS France for sponsoring the Argos satellite tracker and supporting my project