Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 7, 2021
Polly Gould Antarctica, Art and Archive London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020. 368 pp.; 103 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781788311694)

Historically defined by the hypermasculinity of the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration, political contestation, and scientific observation, Antarctica today represents a critical multidisciplinary meeting point. Polly Gould’s Antarctica, Art and Archive offers a timely contribution to the historical study of Antarctica and indicates the refractive interplay among visual media, temporalities, and histories. Gould is both author and artist, and her archival study of the work of Edward A. Wilson and the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910–13 is presented in conversation with her own artistic practice. Taken as a whole, the book brings together a complex series of interrelated histories, materials, disciplines, and people to address the climatic and ecological implications of Antarctica. The volume is comprehensive and vast in its methodology and in its temporal and material reach; an expanded table of contents provides a tool for navigation, and an alternative reading is offered through chapters structured as chiastic pairs. With this, the many intricacies of Gould’s narrative indicate how archives not only preserve the past but also present alternatives for the future.

Early in the book, Gould outlines her argument for a “post-human, new materialist, ecological and feminist figuration of the human and environment” by looking at art practice as a form of observation (1). The archive is proposed as an additional method to inform an understanding of climate change and the Anthropocene. The many nuances underpinning Gould’s archival argument include the complementary perspectives of refraction, ekphrasis, and transposition. These crystallize in the comparison between Wilson’s watercolors and Gould’s own artistic practice, which draws upon the analogous materials of ice and glass and lays the groundwork for thinking about materiality as a refractive process.

In chapter 1, “Elsewhere,” Gould catalyzes her argument for a spatiotemporal understanding of Antarctic history with phrasings such as “elsewhere,” “nowhere,” and “no more elsewhere,” employed to signal the displacement of the observer and the observed. This interpretation of Antarctica is later refracted through the reading of the temporal, spatial, and psychological strata of the Anthropocene. Sigmund Freud’s Entstellung, the psychoanalytic method of interpreting distortion in dreams, is proposed as a means by which to consider the temporal layers of history. With the Victorian predilection for geographical precision, Gould seamlessly identifies how this emerges in the notation of date, time, and location on Wilson’s watercolors. Indicating the different methods of observation and fieldwork, the archive is offered as an alternative to standardized scientific measurements, which are in turn successfully situated in relation to modernism and Clement Greenberg’s theory of the avant-garde. Gould proposes that “Antarctica is aesthetically picturesque at the periphery, but its interior is a vast, mostly featureless plateau” and as such might be perceived as an inherently modernist space (59). Yet, I might add, ideas of imperialism have historically dominated Antarctic and modernist discourse (see, for example, Adrian Howkins and Serge Guilbaut).

In the second chapter, “Watercolor,” the behavior of atmosphere and water in its liquid and solid states flows throughout this refractive narrative. Through the history of exploration and the association between watercolor and maritime imperialism, Gould shrewdly probes how a quest for land manifests itself on a continent composed of both land and ice. With the wandering ship, the portable tins encasing Wilson’s watercolors, and the moving surface of Antarctica’s ice sheet, “perhaps the changing contours of Antarctica also make it fugitive, like watercolor pigment” (112). The challenges of painting en plein air are also insightfully signaled in the effects of subzero temperatures on the medium. The required climate conditions for conservation are explored in relation to material, color, and chemistry and contrasted with Herbert Ponting’s black-and-white expeditionary photographs. Following the written details on his drawings, Wilson noted color and weather observations on his images, whereby “typography becomes topography” (83). This literary and visual ekphrasis is successfully recalled in chapter 4. In parallel, Gould weaves nineteenth-century art historical thinking on art and weather, notably that of John Ruskin from his 1884 lecture, “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” into a material analysis of color and climate in Wilson’s Antarctic sketches. Conveying the refraction of atmosphere and climate through the medium of watercolor, both pigment and solvent, as well as the process by which color chemically and visually manifests itself, Gould presents a refreshing response to the assumed tonal whiteness of the polar regions.

In the third chapter, “Antarctica through the Archive,” we approach the pinnacle of Gould’s literary and historical narrative, where X marks the spot in the journey of the explorers and in Gould’s chiastic structure. Mediating the archive, Gould addresses her own visual responses, whereby the dimensional constraints of the paper-based archive “anamorphically” transform in her inverted panoramas of Wilson’s watercolors. In Gould’s Erebus and Northern Islets (2012), for example, the copied image of Wilson’s Antarctic horizons is transposed onto sandblasted glass, once again recalling the optics of ice and glass threaded throughout the book. Gould describes her sculptures as offering “a visual ekphrasis, a refraction of a fragment of Wilson’s Antarctic archive into a new interpretation” (158). Moving between first- and third-person narratives, Gould confronts her own research process when addressing her belated realization that the nearby Ceremonial South Pole is marked by a mirrored sphere that recalls her own anamorphic globes. This also draws attention to the often-overlooked fact that there are multiple poles, including the geographic and magnetic South Poles. Just as the expeditionary party would have at this point turned home, the chapter invokes a similar structure as the reader begins the return journey, a story of “homecoming” (139).

The full effect of Gould’s refractive narrative emerges as titles become increasingly familiar, often through a loaded play on words. Forming a chiastic pair with the second chapter, chapter 4, “The Color of Water,” delves into the “marginalized ethnographies and eccentric genders” of Antarctic history (167). Centered on the anthropologist Franz Boas and his Arctic iceberg watercolors along with scientific observations of color, Gould considers the typologies of race with which Wilson would have been familiar. A discussion of ethnographic museum displays and architectural designs moves between Augustus Pitt Rivers’s and Boas’s contrasting visions for showcasing artifacts and Pier Luigi Nervi’s concrete, steel, and glass dome design for a new Pitt Rivers museum in the 1960s. In her book, Gould highlights how Antarctica, as an entire continent with little to no human history, is often omitted from ethnographic designs and displays. Gould’s multidisciplinary approach comes into clear focus with her analysis of Wellcome’s Medical Diary and Visiting List (1910), used by Wilson as a journal en route to the South Pole and perceived as a “kind of palimpsest through which cross-readings occur” (178). The ekphrasis of the visual and literary is likewise thoughtfully applied to the historic use of color charts, intended either to display a variety of watercolor pigments or as a method of standardizing racial observations.

The fifth and final chapter, “Where Else,” returns us to the spatial history introduced in the first chapter. Intended to address the notable exclusion of women and the latent feminine in histories of the Heroic Age, this chapter appears instead to offer a significant contribution to the distortions of reality within and beyond Antarctica. Drawing upon the art criticism and philosophical thinking of Luce Irigaray, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Rosi Braidotti, Gould interprets the “sexualized, racialized and naturalized” in the many drawings of penguins and their eggs made by Wilson (215). In recognizing the penguin as an Antarctic trope, Gould returns to Greenberg and his writing on kitsch, drawing parallels with the commodification of expeditionary artifacts. This disconnect from reality is subsequently evidenced in the recollection of the final edition of the explorers’ South Polar Times, in which “science fact is refracted into science fiction” (254). Ursula K. Le Guin’s poignant short story “Sur” (1982), which centers on women, alternate realities, and Antarctica, might have been a useful reference and has already been discussed in this context by Elena Glasberg, who is mentioned only briefly at the outset. Concluding her book with a hopeful message, Gould writes that contemporary art making “returns to Antarctica through the archive in order to read hope into the condition in which we find ourselves under the Anthropocene” (258).

Antarctica, Art and Archive encompasses a vast amount of archival material and successfully integrates Gould’s own artistic practice in response to Wilson’s watercolors and archive. However, the numerous and at times competing methodologies can leave the visual material unanchored within the narrative. Perhaps if she had focused on the global future at stake in archiving Antarctica, Gould would have strengthened her analysis, particularly through closer consideration of art historical research and other arts-based initiatives that have sought to redress Antarctica as a male-dominated and strictly scientific space. The methodological focus is instead reliant on understanding human behavior, intent, and approaches to questions of display, science, and observation. Yet the strength of Gould’s argument, in relation to her archival work on architecture and atmosphere as well as art and the Anthropocene, is evident throughout the book.

In the epilogue, Gould rejects the idea of the archive as a form of refuge from the Anthropocene and instead proposes that her self-termed Arkive looks to the different and future-relevant modes of archival practice. Advocating for ice as opposed to glass to be used as a refractive method by which to observe the multidisciplinary and material entanglements of art and design, genres and genders, Gould proposes that ice, and thus Antarctica, is now “intimately implicated” in the future human habitation of our planet (24).

Isabelle Gapp
Incoming Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Art History, University of Toronto