This week's post was contributed by Michèle Noach. She is a London-based printmaker. Since 2004, she has been visiting the Arctic on research expeditions, tracking retreating glaciers. Her work Through The Ice, Darkly can currently be seen at the Nature Museum as part of Weather to Climate: Our Changing World (open through October 23). In this post, Noach describes her inspiration and process. You can learn more about Noach by visiting her website.
My first venture to the High Arctic was on an expedition in 2004 to Svalbard, midway between the northern-most tip of Norway and the North Pole. It is fair to say it was, visually, like being in a washing machine: I emerged with a recalibrated sense of what constituted beauty, the colour palette, the natural world, and the planet. Having mostly worked from a bubble-gum colour wheel before, in my capacity as an artoonist, it was a scouring experience and I returned with a new interest in ice, the sea and the spectrum of white as a storehouse for all colours.
Ice became an increasing obsession over the years with subsequent trips back to the Arctic, and it was impossible to ignore the ravaged glaciers, the great majority of Arctic ones being in monumental retreat. In their wake, they left gaping dark valleys of broken rock and ancient geological debris. They also took with them the unmistakable romance of the colossal inching rivers of bright ice that had descended from interior land to the sea.
I had by this time started collecting Victorian-era postcards of Northern Norway, photographs taken from 1880’s to the 1910’s, often featuring intrepid tourists in their extravagant garments, walking around the imposing fronts of these glaciers, clearly in awe of their might and beauty. Some of these images were exquisite, taken with very good camera lenses. The differing textures and shades of the ice were mesmerising, determined by age and temperature. Libraries of past climate.
It occurred to me that I could go back to these exact places, so clearly marked, named and dated on many of the negatives still visible on these early postcards, and rephotograph the location. So I spent the next few years on this project and revisited numerous sites, standing as near as I could to the original postcard photographer and recording the shocking diminution or absence of every one of the glaciers I had chosen.
Speaking to locals, there were many changes they experienced with the loss of their glaciers, including the now-impossible traditional methods of travel between villages which involved crossing the snow and ice, reduction of fresh water supplies and disappearing hunting practices.
But for all the practical tragedies and changes logged, it was the altered visual experience that was most striking. A magical, myth-laden Arctic Circle dreamscape was transforming slowly into what looked like quarries or disgarded open mines. The reflected light, colour and strangeness (for example, the inexplicable sounds emitted from inside the glaciers) all gone and only dark, cracked-rock gouges left.
I transported some of the wandering characters from the old postcards into the rephotographed glacial valleys, to bear some kind of witness to the change. Their century-old eyes might be searching for the ice, wondering how it can have disappeared so dramatically, and why. Their voices might be ours too.
The series Through The Ice, Darkly currently on show at the Peggy Notebaert Museum as part of the Weather To Climate exhibition is specifically about the subjective change in the landscape, the shift of mood apparent to an artist’s eyes, a lost ice world.
Original postcard of Kjendalsbræ
Cropped area of original postcard
Final cropped image from postcard, turned into a lenticular 3D print
Final lenticular image of current glacier with a character from old postcard, placed in approximately the same spot as 100 years before