At the Beginning North was Here

(by Marcelline Delbecq, translated from the French and modified by Gabrielle Giattino)

Pack-ice might be described
as a gigantic and interminable
jigsaw-puzzle devised by nature.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, South

At the Beginning North was Here, is the first solo exhibition in Asia of New York artist Ellie Ga. The exhibition brings together a series of works that were conceived during her time aboard a polar sailboat, Tara, and have been realized since her return to solid land. Following a residency at the Explorers Club of New York, Ga was chosen in 2007 to join the small scientific team, as artist in residence, on board Tara. The polar schooner was nearing the end of its two-year expedition, having carried out a 500-day voyage observing the consequences of climate change on the pack ice. Ga surrendered herself to the extreme conditions of this adventure in order to produce a series of works informed at once by the everyday life on the boat as well as the timelessness of a journey taken to the middle of nowhere.

Preoccupied by the eventual release from the pack-ice, the team aboard Tara found themselves at the mercy of the unpredictability of the frozen ocean which held the boat hostage to the patterns of weather and chance, creating the drifting path of Tara’s course. It was over these weeks and months of waiting, of this nearly immobile voyage along the frozen sea – which was at once confining and generously expansive– that these photographs, drawings, and videos were conceived.

The image that opens the exhibition introduces the main issues at hand. A fissure in the ice is illuminated by an improbable light source which disappears towards an astral body – we are not sure if it is the sun or the moon – as a sailboat without sails is resting within the whiteness of a glacier bay. The fissure becomes a path of escape, a path of fate, an uncertain line of an abyss which guides our eyes towards the unknown.

The three projections included in the exhibition stand halfway between a film and a slideshow. A Hole to See the Ocean Through, Probabilities and At the Beginning North was Here immerse the spectator into the artist’s meandering research which oscillates between documentary and fiction, archive and ephemera, reality and prediction. The disconnected time sequences of still images, edited together with occasional video footage, are informed by subtitled text and an accompanying soundtrack from field recordings. The boat’s motor, the screeching of the breaking ice or the tick-tock of a clock marks the unfolding of each of these narratives.

At the Beginning North was Here evokes the total loss of any spatiotemporal framework in the desert of the ice. The first line of this work, “At the beginning North was here, but it keeps changing,” gives the immediate sense of latent distress felt on board the boat. Even though the boat was equipped with technical methods that could identify an exact position (which was neither on solid earth nor in open sea) the position never stopped changing. A return to the exact location where they stood one hour earlier was completely impossible. Only memory could serve to construct landmarks and mark the spots where discrete moments of life had occurred.

In A Hole to See the Ocean Through the artist constructs a verbal map of etymology and explores the metaphorical power of words through mapping the word ‘plankton.’ Ga weaves an account of the terms and procedures performed daily by Tara’s scientists with her own invention of corresponding metaphor and mythology. The hypothetical 3,000 year drift along the floes and currents of the sea – from pole to pole and back of polar molecule ¬ becomes a powerful symbol of the Tara’s surrender. Ga’s lexicon is introduced in this piece, as the uncertainty of the drift reveals the artist’s discovery of a richness of symbolism and analogy. Like the plankton, these simple organisms who move at the whim of the sea’s current, the Tara lodged into the pack-ice was also at the whim of the sea.

The very idea of the future was the only loophole for their confined and compartmentalized bodies and minds, where only the divine virtues of the Tarot could bring them to another plane, where the lines of the unknown could be traced.The playing cards in Probabilities are emblematic of the artist’s preoccupation with fortune telling and the future of the boat, of the team and of the expedition’s route through and out of the pack ice. The howling and moaning soundtrack of the breaking ice represents at once the possibility of relief (in the imminent release of the boat from the ice) and of danger. Since humans began navigating, they have been haunted by the perils of the sea and have often made offerings to saints to assure their safe passage and protection. In Probabilities, the future is in the hands of the players. If they choose to believe in chance, they must leave their choices to the cards, to the grain of the wood table or to the lines of a hand, in order to predict what no scientific document can anticipate. The fissures in the ice therefore become a metaphor for the mystery of their fate.

The contemporary odyssey that Ellie Ga invites us on is one of an incomparable memory, of a twinkling yet blinding light and of a voice that has chosen to listen in order to allow for silence and noise. The work is unique and bewitching and owes inspiration to the long tradition of explorers’ narratives, enriched by cinema and literature. Extracted – with patience – from the obscurity of the glacial night which belongs to no degree of latitude or longitude, the suspended time of a life spent at edge of the earth offers a voyage of extraordinary intricacy, and which, beyond a simple artistic testimony of a polar experience, takes the viewer toward a truly uncharted land.

Back to Bibliography