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Logbook: Expedition to the North Pole

Today we are showcasing a somewhat lighter article, highlighting the magnificence of the Arctic—a region worthy of a photographic expedition. In 2011, Brazilian artist Marcelo Moscheta participated in the Arctic Circle expedition in the international territory of Svalbard. His resulting installations and journal entries offer an inside look at the Arctic's remote terrain.

By Marcelo Moscheta

I board on a northbound trip, always heading north, to the place that will lead me to more doubts than answers and, from the very first day of navigation, questions arise from the entire crew: Why are we going? What is this willingness to go to places unfit for man? Would this be the great challenge between us and nature—to show that we are able, in someway to conquer it? Our doubts were not eased during that conversation, and still they won’t efface from my mind unanswered.

Propelled by the urge of conquest, as if summoned by these poles, many men during the early 20th century set for the unknown extremes of the planet and made history. As Shackleton advertised in a 1914 English newspaper in his famous public call for the Endurance Expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.”

Since 2007, I have been working on small expeditions, displacements, and confrontations. I use my experience with the environment as fuel for creation, swapping the coziness of my shop in Campinas for the challenge of being far from what is controllable. There, within the landscape, I do not hold control of time and space. I am left open to the awe at my surroundings. I am left to meet the essence of the place.

Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city, was our starting point, where I visited the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a silo for seeds from throughout the world with over 5 million species stored in a concrete cylinder casted in the mountain. Once at sea the next day, I met the gloomy realization of constant seasickness. Luckily, we would spend more time anchored at the fiords than moving through icy waters.

The days passed by, and the colors and reflections transmuted under the soft light of an unseen sun, resounding on the whiteness of falling snow, deceiving the senses. It was easy to find myself lost in a landscape that, in matters of hours, changed completely, the face of a mountain turning from brownish green to a snow-coated basaltic monolith. It seemed to tone down the violence of the mountain’s birth.

This violence was sensed in an unusual way, veiled by chilling winds, by the sharp blades of the shattered rocks, by acute peaks, the pressure of prehistoric ice accumulated in immense layers. The ice slashed the soil, scarring it, heaving its gigantic flints into the tranquil fiord waters. It fell in chunks the size of our vessel.

At night, the rocking from our open sea navigation often caused me to wake, believing that the boat was capsizing. In the morning there was calm, seen from the minuscule cabin hatch and composed of placid fiords, still waters and a heavy silence. No one in the crew would dare disturb that solemn moment. We spoke in low voices as if afraid of disrupting the space.

The silence, when the wind was not blowing, announced the mystery of those lands. No sound, no animal, not even the small Arctic foxes and polar bears would risk disturbing the almost compulsory meditation code. Whenever I heard myself breathing, I felt like I did not belong. I was not complying with the Arctic laws or bowing to their might, but rather trying to interact with them.

This idea prompted me to align pebbles on a rocky beach. I recalled men, many years ago at the first territory settlings who decided to settle down and no longer move with the seasons. They began arranging rocks, drawing property marks on the virgin land, erecting walls, defining frontiers, setting boundaries. I remembered Richard Long and Robert Smithson doing the same thing in the 1970s, tracing their designs on the face of the planet, over the stepped-on grass. I felt an ancestral urge to accomplish the same thing.

From that idea many others sprung, and I carried them out with adhesive tape and my camera set at the intersection of the parallel and the meridian. My attempts at greater accuracy were frustrated when I realized my GPS got completely lost at those high latitudes. The magnetic North overdrives the geographic North, and the planet laughs at our attempted domination. I felt defeated but took it as a humbling gift from the Arctic. And there, I got the answer to my initial questions: I came there to be defeated.

In 1898, American Admiral Georges W. Melville wrote a treaty on the North Pole circumnavigation, analyzing the behavior of Arctic currents through a system of “drift casks.” He tossed numbered wooden barrels into the Strait of Behring, Siberia, studying how the currents carried them: across the Arctic Ocean, up to the coast of Greenland and Spitsbergen Island. The analysis allowed for a new action perspective so the explorers could reach the geographic pole.

As a late disciple of these brave men, I remade their work, copied their methodology, and historically connected present and past. In an age of GPS-reliance, facing the North Pole’s “drifting trees,” and remembering their relevance to early polar exploration is like peering into a crevasse in time—the artist finds the ignition of, not just one, but timelines of ideas and theories, scattered throughout fields of human knowledge. Timelines of people setting to the unknown in search of the great adventure, to reach the most remote spots in our world.

The days passed by, sometimes too fast as I plunged into my projects and readings, sometimes painfully slow, as if time itself licked the boat and contemplated our tranquil navigation of those waters.

*****

*****

Marcelo Moscheta is an artist based in Campinas, Brazil. His work addresses the ephemerality of man's attempt to measure his own world, and seeks to recreate physical and geographical aspects found in natural landscapes.  

[Photos courtesy of Marcelo Moscheta]

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