Behind the Silent Hills
Margaret W. & Joseph L. Fisher Art Gallery
June 16, 2018 – July 29, 2018
Reception: Saturday, June 23, 2018 2-4PM
My father read me many books when I grew up, crashing onto my bed and using my stuffed animals as makeshift pillows. I longed to share in the adventure of our readings, to stare into the black of space and to meet the fury of the ocean, to be heroic in times of war and to stumble through the surreal polar landscape. What I didn’t realize at that young age was that my father was giving to me a shared love, the flint that sparked his calling as archaeologist–journals and memoirs of men and women who pressed into the unknown and unknowable.
When I began to create work about the poles, I had to do just that: create. I had felt the burn of rope in my hands and the spray of saltwater on my face, but I had never heard the fizz and crackle of ice in the water or seen the emerald and lavender hues of snow in the dull arctic autumn. And so the sail was born — a labor of love and perseverance. I walked for miles in the snows of Long Island to gather it up, canvas and hemp, from an old marine depot. When I returned home I thought I had gotten bed bugs, but the spots covering my legs were just hives from the cold.
I wanted to create my own iceberg, but having never seen one in person what I created was this; cyanotype, the bright prussian blue of the 19th century, cracked and wrinkled and exposed in the hard spring sun. My interpretation of the berg, much like a medieval drawing of a lion, is a little clumsy and ill formed, with a funny snout and preposterous proportions. But what innocence is there in that malformed lion, drawn from the descriptio passed from mouth to mouth from Africa to the Netherlands! What joy is there in the iceberg made in Long Island, born from the dreams passed from year to year in the sleep of a young woman.
After I saw icebergs myself and sailed amongst the crackling ice in the dull autumn sun of the high arctic — I couldn’t picture my dreamt-of bergs or auroras any longer. The price of knowing something is the inability to imagine quite as freely again. The arctic is a land of extremes, where the cycle of daylight, the temperatures, the tides all push and pull to their utmost, a land of ecstatic beauty and quiet danger.
In 1926 a journalist stood in an open field. Behind him, the tiny coal mining outpost of Ny-Ålesund lay quietly: a few stout, scattered buildings painted in red and goldenrod. Mountains cupped the outpost in the south. The airship Norge was quieter than he’d expected, a slumbering silver creature of the air. Only the ropes hanging down its sides moved, whispering as the wind pushed them against the airship’s hull. The great vessel appeared delicate next to the metal tower that had been built as its launching point and anchor. A crowd had gathered for the launch, huge by any standard for Spitzbergen. They raised their hats, they cheered, tears stinging their cheeks as they gave in to the joy and the anxiety of the journey that the floating fabric ship was just now undertaking.
The feverish preparation of the previous few days — the hurry of mechanics fretting over the motors, the packing and repacking of supplies, the nervous testing of every wire, pipe and stay — all crescendoed in that morning, as light broke and the breeze gathered briskly coming off the nearby glaciers.
The Norge flew straight towards the morning sun, low and golden in the sky. As she moved across the water, graceful and slow, a sudden silence fell across the little outpost, feeling as quiet as midnight despite the ever waxing glow of the sun.
The journalist took off his mittens, the air stinging his fingertips. “The Arctic smiles now,” he wrote, looking out over the bay as the ship grew smaller, a little black speck swallowed by the golden glow of the north, “but behind the silent hills lies death.”
Katherine Akey has an MFA from the International Center of Photography and a BA in Psycholinguistics from NYU. She makes work about polar exploration, World War One, and aviation.