Volatile imaginings

Megan Jenkinson’s visit to Antarctica has spawned an extraordinary series of photographs, which present a post-romantic view of our engagement with nature.

Megan Jenkinson’s recent series of Antarctic photographs are like an extended love poem a place she found both confounding and inspiring when she spent two weeks there in December 2005 on a fellowship offered by Creative New Zealand and Antarctica New Zealand. Confounding because “it’s such an alien environment and no matter how many pictures you look at, or how much effort you put into visualising the place before you go there, it’s really not as you imagine.”

Inspiring because the fellowship has lead to a major series of photographic montages and lenticular prints looking at Antarctica in the past, present and future, which will form the basis of a major exhibition – her first in Auckland for some time – at Two Rooms in May and June this year.

When early explorers frst visited Antarctica they saw ‘phantom islands’ appearing and disappearing like mirages in the vast polar landscape. So real did these islands appear, the explorers named and charted them, not realising they were in fact atmospheric phenomena like the dazzling displays of auroras that animate the southern skies during the hours of darkness at certain times of the year.

Jenkinson’s photographic montages are brilliant evocations of these atmospheric phenomena, visual tricks conjured from the imagination of this acclaimed artist whose last major exhibition, The Virtues, toured New Zealand galleries in the late 1980s. They are a technical departure as well as an aesthetic one for Jenkinson who in the past used scissors and hand colouring to create photographic collages and now creates seamless digital montages using a computer.

Stand in front of the haunting lenticular print, Trulskippen, which is part of Jenkinson’s Certain Islands series, and you’ll see a ghostly snow-covered island in a cold grey sea; but when you move the island disappears and the seascape is empty. Using the lenticular process, which layers several different images within a single photograph, Jenkinson has perfectly captured the elusiveness of reality and the volatility of the imagination in Antarctica’s vast minimal landscape.

Equally striking because of their geographical detail and intense, saturated colours are her digitally montaged images of auroras. In Atmospheric Optics III, an almost iridescent orange curtain shimmers above a bleak Antarctic landscape where you can see a green tank and the spidery outlines of radio masts in a barren rocky landscape. In her Atmospheric Optics series Jenkinson explores the gap between science and the imagination, scanning details of curtains and fabrics – some painted or carved from wood, some real – sourced from paintings, and sculptures in galleries and museums in other parts of the world into digitally blacked-out skies above the polar landscapes she photographed during the residency.

“Landscape is not something I’ve photographed very often,” she says, “but there were certain things I wanted to do in Antarctica and one of them was to analyse the colour of this environment, which we often think of as monochromatic – mostly black, white and blue. Many of the days were brilliant blue with not a cloud in the sky. The environment lacks all those signifers of scale, like trees and buildings, we’re used to seeing. You can’t really perceive scale when those things are absent, so you have a different perspective of your own position in the environment because you feel so insignifcant and everything is very expansive.”

Because she was there during summer, Jenkinson experienced Antarctica’s perpetual daylight.

“When I looked at my photographs they had this incredible sameness about them and there was a difference between what I’d read about the place and what I experienced there. I’d read so many descriptions of the polar night and those transitional times during spring and autumn when there are these amazing atmospheric conditions. So what I’ve done is visualise a lot of the things I didn’t see; the aurora pictures for example simulate auroras or how I imagine them to be without having seen one. I’m interested in this gap between description and what you actually see with your eyes, and I’ve been trying to work with John Ruskin’s idea of ‘word painting’ – a type of writing that describes things very accurately, almost scientifcally, but is not purely scientifc because it has many more adjectives and is very descriptive and subjective.”

As well as refecting the way we superimpose our own readings and associations onto sublime and ’empty’ landscapes like Antarctica, literally furnishing them with our own thoughts, experiences and understandings, Jenkinson’s works are a seamless intermeshing of the romantic, the poetic and the scientifc. The world as it is and the world as we imagine it.

Like much of her earlier work this series includes and is informed by text – Jenkinson’s research into early Antarctic exploration and her readings of the journals of Robert Falcon Scott and another member of his doomed polar party, the doctor and artist, Edward Wilson.

For instance, Atmospheric Optics IV Wilson’s Prayer, a ghostly image of a torso and legs draped in green cloth hovering above the icy horizon, imagines the last thoughts of the members of Scott’s party as they lay dying not far from their next food depot.

“Wilson did the most beautiful watercolours and wrote about the expedition, and when I went to Cambridge a few years ago to research a project about Scott’s fossils, I saw some of Wilson’s sledging diaries and sketchbooks he carried to the Pole and which were found on his body. He and his comrades had tragically starved to death during a blizzard. He described auroras as very curtain-like and sometimes like waving ribbons in the sky, whereas in photographs they appear very blurred. So my photographs are possibly closer to what the experience of seeing an aurora is like.”

Jenkinson photographed the collection of fossils Scott and his party hauled back from the South Pole, which are now held in London’s Natural History Museum, and these images formed the basis of Fossil Cairn The Weight of Destiny, 2007, her recent installation at Christchurch Art Gallery.

“The fossils containing plant forms would have been amazing things to have found in that environment. The party spent a day and a half fnding them and then hauled these fossils, which weighed 35lbs, for about 40 days. When the men died they were only eleven and a half miles from their food depot and that struck me as very signifcant because without the fossils the men may have made it. I photographed the fossils in London and thought I would recreate the shape of the snow cairn built over the men’s bodies when they were found. I printed the photos and installed them on the gallery wall as cut-out images of rocks opposite a copy of an historic photograph of the cairn. On another wall was a diagram of a snowfake and quotations from the men’s diaries and other sources. The text was about snow, ice, rock and weight – all the elements that combined and contributed toward the demise of Scott’s polar party.”

In The Ocean World photographs, also part of her Antarctic Series, Jenkinson departs from geographical reality altogether, taking an ambitious imaginative dive under the surface of the Antarctic Ocean and creating eerie underwater scenes populated by sparkling jellyfsh, which are actually montaged images of crystal chandeliers foating through submerged architectural spaces. Inspired by illustrative drawings of jellyfsh and other undersea creatures in a dog-eared copy of an old book titled The Ocean World, these images perfectly evoke a blue/green aqueous world flled with mysterious life forms.

Through her contact with scientists at Scott Base, Jenkinson became aware of their research into climate change over millennia and the effects of global warming on the polar region.

“Antarctica is like a time capsule of climatic and geological changes but the information is hidden and invisible to the untrained eye.”

Her Weight of Water series is an apocalyptic vision of the future – entire cities submerged under water, their ghostly architecture barely visible beneath rippling seascapes. In Weight of Water II, 2007, you can glimpse the outlines of Piazza San Marco in Venice submerged beneath a toxic orange sea like a premonition of the worst-case scenario for a city that is threatened by rapidly rising sea levels.

Jenkinson has also photographed rocks containing minerals known to exist in the polar region, which could potentially be mined once the Antarctic Treaty expires. Her Economic Minerals series contemplates the ice continent’s future if such exploitation occurs and also looks back at Scott’s fnal expedition.

“I’m trying to make connections between the fossils and minerals found by Scott’s party and how these objects are considered now in terms of economic value.”

Looking at these images, it’s easy to see why Jenkinson has described this impressive body of work as “a post-romantic view of our engagement with nature”, meditating on the temporal nature of existence brought home to her during her visit to Antarctica – an extreme environment where humans are insignificant and vulnerable, dependent on complex life support systems to stay alive.

Virginia Were

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