What happens when icebergs collide with art

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Ohen the hip hop artist and music producer Scary DJ first visited Antarctica in 2007, he was amazed at how quickly everything is changing there. Meltwater can be heard trickling down the edges of once solid glaciers; the waters echo with the creak and roar of icebergs as they melt. Natural changes on this scale are expected to take millennia. After all, the Antarctic ice sheet – almost 10 times the volume of its northern rival in Greenland – took millions of years to create. Now it is disappearing at speeds visible on human timescales. DJ Spooky felt like “geological time in slow motion” was “accelerated by human climate change”.

DJ Spooky has traveled to Antarctica to see firsthand the changes befalling one of the most sublime places on our planet, a landscape that has long seemed beyond human influence. His multimedia work Terra Nova: Antarctic Sinfonia incorporates videos and sounds he recorded from the ice and the ocean, accompanied by melodic strings that seem to alternate between lamentation and high-pitched urgency. He plays with movement, even manipulating the way the sound itself moves through the room, to bring what he calls an “emotional and immersive quality” to the experience.

In Melville’s poem, the natural world is still extremely powerful.

Icebergs have also cast their spell on Catherine Walker, glaciologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She too sailed among the Antarctic icebergs and was amazed by their tremendous beauty and fragility. To study changes in Antarctica, Walker works primarily with numbers: the physics of how icebergs are created and destroyed. But she is also fascinated by their stories. An iceberg is created when a chunk breaks off the edge of a larger ice cap, such as the one that covers Antarctica. Icebergs can be huge – as big as Rhode Island – and seem to have a life of their own.

One of his favorite icebergs “calved” (or broke away) from Antarctica the year he was born. It is large enough to show up on satellite images. “I watch it go around the Antarctic continent and shrink,” she says. Such stories help him – and others – care about the distant, abstract fate of a place as distant as Antarctica. “It’s not an interesting story to tell in a research paper,” admits Walker, but it drives his work: “I want to see what’s happening and help tell his story as the climate changes.”

These amazing transformations have their roots in the late 19th century, when the world seemed to be poised on a tipping point. The great marine writer Herman Melville captured this moment of transition in his poem “The Berg (A Dream)”. Reflecting on this poem, DJ Spooky and Walker take us out to sea, among the icebergs of an earlier time – a time before we feared the fragility of the Antarctic ice, but after we began to fear our own power to change the natural world.

The Bergtells the story of a bravely decked out military-designed ship that crashes into an iceberg. When the poem appeared in 1888, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The United States and other nations were rapidly urbanizing, once-abundant species were dwindling, and new forms of energy – steam, oil, electricity – were transforming human life. Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the period from 1850 to 1900 as a benchmark to compare today’s post-industrial carbon dioxide levels. Melville had already seen many changes: even the whales that star in his epic Moby-Dick had been hunted relentlessly – on the brink of extinction for some species.

In Melville’s poem, the natural world is still extremely powerful. The devastating collision that sinks the ship – much like the Titanic would sink 24 years later – barely moves the iceberg. Yet the energy of human ambition hints at a different future, as explorers venture into even the most remote and hostile places.

The poem reads like a tongue twister: it is composed in the style of ancient Anglo-Saxon sagas of exploration, which used heavy alliteration. This very difficulty seems to capture Melville’s cultural moment, when the age-old drive for conquest meets contemporary sensibilities: awe, wonder, even a secret desire that nature will prevail in the end.

When he wrote this poem, Melville may have had in mind an image of the sloop of war USS Peacock facing the ice of Antarctica in 1840. The peacock had served in the War of 1812 and fought pirates in the Caribbean before going to Antarctica. as part of the United States Exploratory Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes.

FORCE OF NATURE: The power and dynamism of icebergs have inspired artists for centuries, as evidenced by this 1840 engraving USS Peacock in the ice depicting the ship’s perilous expedition to Antarctica. Illustration taken from Wikimedia Commons.

An engraving of the expedition, with which Melville was familiar, illustrates a terrifying episode in which the peacock was nearly crushed by icebergs. The icy cliff of the engraving towers over the proud ship, with “the dead indifference of the walls”, describes Melville. The Peacock had become trapped in an ice field, which had crashed down and disabled the rudder, making the ship nearly impossible to steer; a huge collision with an iceberg later destroyed parts of the ship’s stern. As the ship bounced, “an impending mass of ice and snow fell in its wake”. Wilkes tells us that “if it had dropped seconds earlier, it should have crushed the ship to atoms.”

The peacock was miraculously saved through an opening in the ice. Melville’s “martial construction ship” is not so lucky. The iceberg in the poem, “imminent tilt,” drops “huge icicles… / Sullen, in tons that crashed on deck.” At the time, the ice sheets of Antarctica represented the immense power of nature: sublime obstacles that stood in the way of the growing energy of industry. Antarctica seemed like the only place on Earth that humans were just not supposed to go. An explorer complained in 1832 that too many of his peers had fallen in love:

a superstitious idea that an attempt to reach the South Pole was a presumptuous intrusion into the terrible confines of nature, an illegal and sacrilegious intrusion into the secrets of the great Creator.

To fearful navigators, the ice of Antarctica had issued a divine warning: “You will come so far, but no further; and here your proud race will stop.

At that time, icebergs really seemed like “mountains of ice.” Like mountains, these icebergs seemed motionless and unchanging. They appealed to artists and writers like Melville, fascinated by physical and psychological extremes. In the 19th century, strong passions were in vogue, as were the sublimities of extreme landscapes. Painter Frederic Church took a perilous rowboat near several ice giants in the Arctic to paint “The Icebergs.” Two years after the painting was first exhibited in 1861, Church added the broken mast of a ship to suggest mankind’s helplessness in the face of these seemingly invincible natural wonders.

DJ Spooky and Walker say the Antarctic icebergs they’ve seen up close are as awe-inspiring and frightening as they were in Melville or Church’s days. Yet for both artist and scientist, it’s not just Melville’s ship that seems doomed. The ice, imposing as it may seem, is, at its core, just an impermanent “ghostly thing,” says Walker. As Melville writes, even the “hard berg” is “adrift dissolving, bound to death.” In 1888, climate change and global warming were still distant ideas, but already Melville had his eye on how the tables might turn.

Main image: Frederic Church, “The Icebergs” (1863). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


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