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Light Research @ MMU

The Light of the Antarctic

One of the key qualities of place is the quality of the light that falls upon it. Consider the ever-changing skies of the West Highlands of Scotland, or the cloudless skies and vibrant, toxic sunsets of Los Angeles. An exhibit at VIVID attempted to capture something of the legendary effects of the light in Antarctica, by drawing on the accounts from the 1911-14 expedition to map hitherto unknown areas of the icy continent, led by pioneer Australian explorer, Douglas Mawson. Mawson and his colleagues wax lyrical about the ever-changing light of this polar region which Mawson described as ‘a world of colour, brilliant and intensely pure’, despite the appalling privations they were forced to bear. The exhibit, Terra Incognita, devised by McDermott Baxter Light Art, a company run by Ruth McDermott and Ben Baxter, featured extracts from Mawson’s diary and other writings recorded in a voice-over, together with dramatic sequences of vibrantly coloured illumination lighting and sound effects to evoke the harsh yet beautiful landscape. Here are some of the wonderfully evocative archival extracts and images from the display:

terra Incognita 3

Powerless, one was in the spell of an all-enfolding wonder. The vast, solitary snow-land, cold-white under the sparkling star-gems; lustrous in the radiance of the southern lights; furrowed beneath the icy sweep of the wind. We had come to probe its mystery, we had hoped to reduce it to terms of science, but there was always the “indefinable” which held aloof, yet riveted our souls.

A calm morning in June, the sky is clear and the north ablaze with the colours of sunrise—or is it sunset? The air is delicious, and a cool waft comes down the glacier. A deep ultramarine, shading up into a soft purple hue, blends in a colour-scheme with the lilac plateau.

Terra Incognita lilac sm

The tranquillity of the water heightened the superb effects of this glacial world. Majestic tubular bergs whose crevices exhaled a vapourous azure; lofty spires, radiant turrets and splendid castles; honeycombed masses illumined by pale green light within whose fairy labyrinths the water washed and gurgled. Seals and penguins on magic gondolas were the silent denizens of this dreamy Venice. In the soft glamour of the midsummer midnight sun we were possessed of a rapturous wonder.

The liquid globe of sun has departed, but his glory still remains. Down from the zenith his colours descend through greenish-blue, yellowish-green, straw yellow, light terra-cotta to a diffuse brick-red; each reflected in the dull sheen of freezing sea. Out on the infinite horizon float icebergs in a mirage of mobile gold.

terra incognita2

At times the light was nimble, flinging itself about in rich waves, warming to dazzling yellow-green and rose. These were the nights when “curtains” hung festooned in the heavens, alive, rippling, dancing to the lilt of lightning music. Up from the horizon they would mount, forming a vortex overhead, soundless within the silence of the ether

While the wind rushed by at a maddening pace and stars flashed like jewels in a black sky, a glow of pale yellow light overspread the north-east horizon—the aurora. A rim of dark, stratus cloud was often visible below the light which brightened and diffused till it curved as a low arc across the sky.


Terra Incognita Aurora


June 18th, 2014 - 05:23am

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