Saturday, June 30, 2007

'If on a Winter's Night, a Traveler' ...

"To define the present in isolation is to kill it" - Paul Klee

I am not sure how to end my letters to you. To offer a quote and perhaps a few more fragments of my long event? Is that enough? I ask myself.
It is with a certain unsurity and hesistancy: returning home should always hover between relief and doubt. I found Ann Arbor quite the same yet warm and green. And within an hour, I caught my breath in landlocked suspense, missing the sense of water, of a fjørd, a route, if needed, and the possibility that an ocean current could carry off my past. I carried my objects back with me in addition to a few I had traded for: a Norwegian blanket, native food such as chocolate and candy, two Danish designed spoons, a pair of London shoes, and some random items that one can collect on foreign lands. The maps that guided my travels also allowed for my return voyage accompanied with filled notesbooks of data and narrative imagery of first hand experiences.

The movement of people across landscapes, all landscapes, has always eclipsed what one assumes to be their limit. During the past 1 1/2 weeks in Oslo and København, my nordic past awoke through the people and perhaps the assistance of few old relatives' ghosts hovering about me. I think if it weren't for a few living people who love me here, I may have decided to stay on with those old ghosts, re-awakening what my relatives once did by coming to the U.S. 100 years ago.

I don't think I am ready to turn my back on what my grandparents and relatives began. Weighted in their gestures is the a spacial sense of 'home', which can be created anywhere if given the time and patience. Borders are always built: we may unconsciously want them there. They serve their purpose, at times, to give us the freedom to remain in one place.
And in my usual thought pattern, I believe that there is still time to migrate,

to flock where one feels absolutely possessed with the knowledge of an open polar sea route.

I have decided to continue my letters to you. They are from home though and not from abroad. But I think the act of writing is often from far away. And there are always great distances to cross.


View outside my bedroom window in København at 11pm at night, still light.

The National Museum in København, Eskimology department in their Ethnographic wing.

Goggles used in Greenland to aid hunters so that they can see in the blinding summer light reflections off the snow and ice.

Shoes dug up in an old section of København a few years ago.

A newer artifact deserted for the future to someday dig up.

And where it may quite possibly end up.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kopenhavn- the archive vs....

I am on my last stop of my trip: Copenhagen! At the Danish Polar Center on the small island of Christianhavn in the center city's south end. My flat is actually about one block from the center, which is so fortunate.

I have met with two people, Kirsten is the photograph archive librarian and Annika is the prints/painting archivist. I have been there for the past two days and have realized that it is a whole other monster: Greenland and the Danes.... It has its own history, problems, representations, anthropological experiments and field work (including very interesting eugenics field work done in 1883-85, 1885-88 of both Eskimo Greenlanders and the Danes in Denmark, complete with amazing photographs, by Søren Hansen, an anthropologist,). And I know close to nothing, save a few names and artists, about any of it! But I have learned a lot in the past two days based on the little information that I did know and two very good archivists to assist me and offer up any information that they know of names, places, interesting stories or situations. Their photograph collection is incredible and the years 1860-1930 are all on a public database. This is one of the key things I have been going through. I will post the website of it at the end, for it is worth just checking out except that it is only in Danish. I will include a few names to enter into the database so you can see what I have been looking at, too.

Grønland has been a colony of Denmark since 1721, and so they have had their share of a difficult relationship with missionaries, 'eskimos', the 'Danes', the 'Greenlanders', the anthropologists and scientists, government any colony. Everyone seems to have had their own agenda when it came to the huge island.

The archives at the Polar Center are just that: an archive of Danish polar history, across the vast arctic and in Grønland. They (the archives) are rarely shown publicly and the center does not have a public education department that would host school children on fieldtrips or anything like that. This is really too bad because a wealth of information is resting in the attic, just like there was at the National Maritime Museum in London. So much that is never publicly displayed. Are these archives dead? The question that came to me while looking up on their 6th floor, which is where everything is carefully packaged and placed on shelves, is if an archive is not shown, then what is it considered? It hovers in this interstitial space that is neither pre- or post- museum for it may never even reach the museum. It is no longer living because the artifacts or photographs have been taken away from the field, away from where they were found. They are not dead in a museum display either. The only people to acknowledge their existence is the archivist, that which has housed them there. And then the occasional researcher, looking for something specific within the archive. The artifact in the archive gains its significance through its personal tag with date/number/name/description it has been gifted and its computer database or binder accompaniment. But without this tag, is it just junk? Hoarded up in an attic, the top floor, or in a basement, as most archives are placed? Architecture determines a lot about importance. Bathrooms on the ground floor of houses, along with kitchens, and bedrooms on the second floor or towards the back of a house. In the Somerset House in London, originally the important offices were on the ground floor with the best furniture and from there up it just became cheaper and the ceilings lower. We constantly act as history's witness by visiting museums, forts, au/biographies, government buildings, op-ed pages in newspapers, and churches as tourists, to give a few examples. Yet, who is the archive's witness besides the archivist?

Why do we choose to keep fragments of clay pipes? Is it an act of salvation, a gesture of saving, even if we are not directly connected to that which we have dug out of red dirt, found in a cave, chiseled out of a glacier, tripped on in a jungle? I recognize that we would like to hope that we are getting 'better' as humans. This I am not so sure about and I am ok with that. I can still drink my wine at night. But our things, our possessions, they surround us, shroud 'us' at times, who we as people, as creators in the world are. Is it the archive that does not allow us to move past our histories? Our physical landscapes determine our objects, too, which then shape who we, individually and societally, morph into. I do not know how to use a sledge because I was not born in the snow and ice. I use a sled for winter fun, leisure instead of work. Travel moves objects around the globe more easily than even 50 years ago.(study abroad college programs, cruises) I am bringing back 'foreign objects' that I hope to keep as part of my personal history of this research trip, along with my personal diary I kept and my public notebook and my computer documents and digital photographs, which are public and some personal. I have created my archive, my collection, my personal historia of a young single woman american artist traveler who left her partner at home with their kitten. Now I will have to decide whether to place my archive in the basement or attic?
and - go to the right side of the page under the word 'fritekstsøgning' and do the following searches if you are interested:
Christian Bendex Thostrup
Søren Hansen
Tegninger (this means drawings)
Morten Pedersen Porsild
Danmark Ekspeditionen
Thule Ekspeditionen
Knud Rasmussen

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Oslo, the second part of the expedition

i give a howdy from Oslo! I am staying in the city for four days. Tomorrow, off to the maritime museum and to see Amundsen's Fram, all by way of ferry through the fjord.
I will write more tomorrow. Since i am at a hostel now, I won't be able to upload my photos. Too bad, because I have some great shots from the prime meridian,greenwich! And of the lovely Somerset House, which had the offices of the Admirlty ad the Royal Society, shown to me by the wonderful Professor Lambert, who gave the second Freeze Frame lecture at the museum.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

On Saturday, my brother William and I took the train outside the city to Cambridge. The ride was quite beautiful, going through farmland and fields full of little wild poppies. The weather was again moody and undetermined, and never fully made up its mind all day, to rain or shine, and so it did a little bit of both. Our journey was to see the Scott Polar Research Institute, which is Cambridge University's polar studies department.

The building is dedicated to Sir Robert Scott, the great Antarctic explorer who I have mentioned before because he died on Antartica

and managed to write down his final 'goodbye and god-speed' to the British public, which instantly made him into an icon.

The Institute has a small museum, too, which is full of Scott, Shackleton, and Franklin memorabilia, just to name a few.

Such 'Scott' things you will see there as a visitor are:
A very old biscuit...

goggles fashioned after the Inuit's...

A medicine and needle kit brought along by Scott...

And ice cleats worn by one of Scott's men

Such things you will find from Franklin's expeditions are: Franklin's Silverware! How exciting!
With the family crest! These were traded from the Inuit by Dr. Rae and a few other search parties.

Also, they made stereoscopic images from the Franklin artifacts that were put on public display

Locket with Lady Jane Franklin, owned by Captain Markham, one of the many Captains who went out searching for Franklin and crew, which I found a bit scandalous!

They also had some publicity posters for the explorers' lectures they had to give of their exploits: here is one for the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, who never liked giving them but had to in order to raise funds.

A porcelain place setting of an 'arctic scene'.

This postage stamp of Roald Amundsen.

My photographs of these objects are not the best since they were all behind glass. The Institute also had information on their contributions for IPY (international polar year).

I have two more full days left in London! My time here has quickly gone by and on Wednesday I fly to Oslo, Norway to begin my Norwegian Quest, which will only last 4 days.

I'll meet you at the Cemetery gates

Quite fitting with Friday's brooding weather, I went to Kensal Green Cemetery to visit a few old friends: Captain John Ross, Captain Edward Inglefield, Captain McCormick, and Captain McClure. And definitely not to forget, Lady Jane Franklin.

First stopping in at the small office, I got a plot map and a list of where they were each buried, thinking that in the midst of all the graves, that I would be able to find theirs.

This was not the case...

The only grave, even with a map in hand!, was Captain Ross's grave,

which was quite exquisite with an anchor and chain.

And Lady Jane's grave closed to the public in a mausoleum as I was told by one of the cemetery workers. But there were some other exquisite graves or tombs that I photographed, which sort of made up for the fact that I couldn't place my plastic red rose on her grave.

Yes, that is a sphinx on the right side...

Friday, June 15, 2007

No, it is not the turtle

There is something about finding what you have been searching for: But not exactly what you have been searching for, rather, what has come to represent that which you have been searching for. A representation, an object, a thing that is not the actual thing, but the stand-in, the surrogate, the child that you weren't expecting to have or find. Your rune that allows you to catch your breath and stay frozen in the moment: a projection caught. You see the thing and you catch yourself becoming overwhelmed at the immensity of what you are seeing, staring, gaping at. It may have no significance to any other person, and perhaps once it didn't have significance for you either. But at that moment, at that instant, it has purpose, motive, and you partake in its energy.

For me, it was Captain Nares' sledge, which he used in 1876 during his arctic expedition. Rather, what his crewmembers used for it is not known which of his sledge parties used it as there were a few. This expedition had the most accounts of scurvy in all of 19th century polar exploration, even more than earlier expeditions. Coming upon this sledge was not with the intention of seeing specifically this sledge but rather seeing an example of a sledge. It just so happens that Captain M'Clintock designed this sledge during the 1850's for his expeditions: It represented the past-past, not just the past. It represented an evolution and multiple design changes that M'Clintock made. It probably represents a few other things, too, but that is not why I found significance in this object. I had a moment: these things are not easily understood or explained. Seeing this sledge across the expansive storage room, I almost cried. Amidst the sealed objects and ship bells, I gasped and had to catch my breath. And even now, I can't stop thinking about it. Did I really see it? I keep asking myself. I have the photographs to show that I stood in front of it and spent time with it, but I feel greedy. I wanted more time with it. I wanted to spend the day with it, the week with it. In fact, I want it in my house, to always see it. My photographs only magnify my miscomprehension, my muddled feelings towards the sledge.
Could it be defined as a religious experience? A spiritual experience? Perhaps. At least in my relationship to either of those two things, I would say that this sledge's energy is the closest thing I've felt to an 'awe' moment, which usually occurs during moments of personal divine reckoning, in a very very long time.

We find significance in text written by a person on a page, we build our own meaning of what they are saying, we carry this with us, perhaps memorizing it and making it a mantra that we pull out from time to time for lectures, dinner parties, romantic moments, discussions with children (or adults), and personal moments when we need that little bit of encouragement we once found in a book. These things that we construct for ourselves give back to us. They are like little wisps of nothing, perhaps a piece of shoe leather broken off a snow boot found in 1859 in the frozen arctic: it is a piece of trivial junk that manages to have power within its own insignificance. A passing comment, the low dense background rumble from the timpani during a symphony, or the piece of gum your grandmother always gave you at that symphony: your senses awaken and it all rushes back. You see that particular color and it floods you, pulling you under its currents to push you to the bottom of its ocean gorge. A deep well: from a sound, a color, a smell, a folded page, a photograph, a piece of long red hair found on your shirt one year later.

The weight of a sledge was perhaps 800 pounds once it was steeped with provisions that might have to last for thirty days out on the ice. Each man might have to pull twice his weight, every day, even on a bad day. British sledges weren't like Inuit sledges: they didn't ice their rails since they didn't know that this would make it easier. That was Amundson's role in the story of the Arctic. The British gained their knowledge about sledges from personal experience and from the Norwegians. Earlier on, they did not use dogs but instead 'man' power and then later kites and sails. They used dogs intermittently but not as much as they could have. They finally really learned how to drive sledges using dogs towards the end of the 1800's. The dogs were just more mouths to feed, so perhaps that is why they didn't use them at first? Or they were scared since that is what the 'natives' used? Or perhaps they didn't see the potential in them? Or perhaps they saw it as animal abuse? Though these were not what we now know as the American Huskie, these dogs were probably cross breed with wolves and traded from the Inuit. I am just speculating, I don’t know these things for certain and currently aren't too interested.
The problem with my photographs of the sledge and with the experience with being next to it, is that I felt rushed. One never wants to be rushed when they are having a divine experience. They want to feel relaxed and at ease in fully realizing every detail of the experience. Seeing the sledge, I felt rushed, timed, that I only had a few minutes to document and then move on. To know its personality and the type of each leather knot tied. Did I waste those few precious minutes, I ask myself now? Was there more for me to actually see? Was there more for me to realize about the 'event'? Did I miss something such as a smell or shaft of light marking a secret part of the sledge that I didn't see because I looked away for a moment, adjusting my lens or moving the metal ladder or…. I had the 'awe' moment, yes, but did I fully take advantage of the awe moment? I'm not sure. Are we ever able to fully capture every instance of such an occurrence or do we come to reconstruct them later in our mind, and evolve them into what we then say as 'Ah, yes, that was it, just like that. It occurred just as this and then that'? We process our language either out onto a page or for the aurality of another person. The 'awe' seeks a witness: Someone or thing to declare it as factual within our personal lives, as possessing a life of its own. And the event is formed. The restructured step by step processed to a fruition of meaning.
Walking home alone from dinner with friends, one of the red foxes of London crosses in front of me, hovers and then runs along. Pendrell Road, SE4 77W, 10:30 in the evening, walking back towards home, alone and missing you, Dundalk Rd and a house filled with guests, London in cold June: 'You never told me there were foxes in London', is formed into a poem, into meaning. It immediately possesses a voice of its own, singing to me. Capturing moments like on a cold January, it was so early morning blue outside when I came down to the kitchen at 6:30am, and going to the fridge, pulled out an orange: South African Midnight. Stunned at the sink to read a label such as this, on such a blue morning in my pajamas, alone in the kitchen, you upstairs asleep, and January's kiss on the trees.

These instances hold us together: They keep us, like water in our bodies, intact, in check, fluid in existence. Mundane activities of the hands keep us going at times: They let us continue when other things seem to want to prevent us from moving. There was a time when all I wanted to do was to use my hands in clay, without firing it. The thought of firing it froze me, scared me, to see something stop moving, so permanently, so fixed. I'm sure no one else in my art department had this fear, as they all seemed quite flexible in lending their time towards the lapping fires of the gas kilns that I deemed quite deathly in their ability to snuff out water. One could not turn back after a firing, as was evident of all the clay shards thrown into the rubbish out back behind the ceramic department: a graveyard formed every week before the garbage men came to pick up this funerary pile. I couldn’t get myself to partake in it. So I did my own thing and mixed clay with other materials viscous in nature that enabled them to slump and bend and be cut with an exacto knife, or left to crumble in their own delicacy. It seemed quite natural for me to leave them within the impermanence of the moment. And my undergraduate honors thesis reflected this shift in thoughts and the world: geological rock formations, birthmarks, personal anecdotes about 'home'.
And I still find myself within this realm of deceit: it is a tug-of-war game, really, that many don't seem to mind. It is not easy to move over constantly shifting ice floes or packs, where one has to repeatedly calculate their longitude and latitude, even when standing still. So close to the earth's axis of rotation is a remarkable thing. Activities are performed quicker, such as dressing in the morning, not because of the cold but just to catch up with the slowness of the equator. The sledges pulled would form part of that daily routine, as well as various scientific instruments that were packed onto the sledge, and, if you were so lucky, random Franklin crewmembers' personal objects that you found along your way, gems to be brought back to England, and perhaps something small for yourself. I wonder about the bones of John Irving, the only named crewmember to be buried on British terrain. Which sailor placed his bones into a box or were they wrapped in cloth? Holy relics, christened with polar ice and wind: those sensational bones, exulted on a sledge, a M'Clintock sledge, whose pallbearers still had to defy scurvy and weather on their way back to the ship, to defy their dwindling rations. Did the sailors hear the rattling of John's bones as they lay awake, hammocks in mid pendulum swing? Those protesting bones: because they were traveling in the opposite direction of the North West. Returning through the Baffin's Bay tunnel from whence those bones came with such optimism: Water all around them, but not enough to mold their flesh together again. Is he lonely, feeling at odds in his British cemetery, displaced?
There are many things at odds with themselves that lay within the confines of a museum's storage: ship models, anchors, pieces of gold trimmed railing, masts, silk handkerchiefs, shoes, clay pipes, sails, shreds of clothing. Like criminals they are trapped without visitors, in gang rooms. Their bunks lining walls and walls and their bedding of plastic sheet: Some, if they are lucky to be small, a tissue shroud. But more than a prison, a tomb.
That is where the sledge, my sledge, lay in state: its Westminster or Royal Naval Hall miles away. I'm sure it has had a few visitors, unlike some of its comrades, and has been written about, short epitaphs in conference papers or distinguished journals. Should we bury our objects just as we bury our bodies? Would our histories suddenly mean more, would we actually learn from our pasts instead of merely discussing them? Those conference paper, those published thesis? I'm not sure. I don't know how things would be different. Museums or garbage dumps: A person's private collection or a private moment within the confines of a storage facility. Searching through 'history' reveals many poignant potshards and scat. And a sledge can become the thing that the entire world rests on, instead of a turtle's back.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Make shift boats and grand entrances

Yesterday's excursion to Dulwich college (or 'high school), a 'public' (which is equivalent to private) school in south east London: The 'James Caird'is the little sail boat that Shackleton and five men sailed 800 miles to reach South Georgia Island from Elephant Island (in the Antarctic) where his men were stranded. They then had to traverse South Georgia in order to get to the whaling station that was located on the other side. It was the first time the island's interior was crossed. Shackleton's boat, the 'Endurance' had been crushed in the ice but they had managed to get many provisions off. Shackleton attended school at Dulwich College.

Shackleton managed to rescue every one of his men off Elephant Island. They all lived to tell their tales

One of the members of the crew refitted the sail boat for their 800 mile journey by adding a few inches around the top ridge and fitting cloth to it so that while 3 men tended the sails and such, the other men could get rest below, out of the wind.

Shackleton donning his Sunday best...on Antarctica.

Around the walls of the room were photographs and other memorabilia such as the sledges and sail.

This was the original sail used. It was beautiful in its weathered state

Sledges used during one of his Antarctic trips.

On a different note, this is the souvenir program from the Royal Naval Exhibition in 1891 at Chelsea in London, which had features such as HMS Victory, the ship that Sir Nelson was killed on, a Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, an exhibit about Captain Cook, and of course, Sir Franklin and his men.

Even then they had advertisements in their programs, which cost 6 pence.

This was the floor plan: notice that I have marked with a blue dot the entrance of the exhibition. The Red dot signals where the Franklin Relics were on display! The very first exhibit!

In the program, Franklin was Chapter One

Example of the layout with the 'relics'.

The writing is a bit difficult to read since the program was not in very good shape.