Tom Jeffreys

The Arctic that Katie Turnbull shows us is not the Arctic of the mind’s eye. Most of us will never visit the Arctic. Like the surface of the moon or the depths of the oceans, it is a place that we will only ever encounter via stories and photographs, film and our own imaginations. Of the first fifty results of a Google image search for ‘Arctic’, only five show any obvious trace of human activity. Instead, we see deep, otherwordly blues, and the sun reflecting of a landscape of pristine white.

Within seconds, it’s clear that Turnbull’s The Arctic is an Eye is something quite different. Before peaks of dark scree lies a channel of ice and grey-green slush. The air is grey and dense. A white line charts its way across the image. A hand intervenes – thumb and forefinger pinch to zoom, and the scene changes. A glitchy score by Sound the Bone fosters a sense of anxiety. Over the top, we’re told about the biomechanics of the eye in a voice of white male authority. Here, we see the Arctic no longer as a landscape of sacred stillness, but one that is being imposed upon, over and over again.

In October 2014, Turnbull was one of a group of twenty-five artists who spent two weeks sailing the west coast of the Svalbard archipelago. They reached 79°52 N, 011°48 E, just beyond Ny-Ålesund, the world’s northernmost civilian settlement. For Turnbull it was a strange experience despite the beauty of the landscape. “I am struck how often I read the word desolate used to describe the landscape of the Arctic regions,” she has subsequently written, “when it is anything but.”

The natural world is often idealised as static and stable, but Turnbull demonstrates the anthropocentric limits of such thinking. Instead, she depicts the Arctic as a place of dramatic change. Where photography is best suited to the capture of an individual moment, Turnbull’s work has always been about movement. She has a master’s in animation and interactive media from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and previous projects have included kinetic sculpture (Patterns of Thought, 2014), animation installation (Modern Vanitas, 2012), and a series of lenticular prints (Swarm Series, 2014) that rely for their effect upon the movement of the viewer.

Since the Svalbard residency Turnbull has produced both The Arctic is an Eye and an iOS application entitled Imperceptible Time. The two works are closely linked. The app consists of a twenty-four-hour film piece in the form of a clock. It attempts to give an impression of how time might loosely be experienced by the brightly-coloured Arctic tundra lichen that the artist encountered on the rocks of Svalbard. Meanwhile, The Arctic is an Eye builds upon this view of the Arctic as a place in flux by accentuating the extent to which humans have been responsible for the acceleration of the pace of change.

Contemporary art is usually very wary of anything that might be considered didactic. But Turnbull has responded to her experience of the Arctic with the urgency of a personal awakening. “It is my belief that we need to view the landscape from a non-human perspective,” she has written. For a start, she is personally embedded in the work – both emotionally (“My growing sense of unease” reads one surtitle) and physically, via a counter of the carbon emitted during the journey to Svalbard from the artist’s home in Sydney, Australia.

Running counterpoint to the presence of the artist are direct and repeated addresses to the viewer. These questions come from a range of opinion polls, and Turnbull has incorporated the resulting data sets into the video animation. At the same time, we see rising carbon dioxide levels over 350,000 years and the decline of sea ice since the 1980s.

We’re given glimpses of protest marches, but they don’t seem to be achieving anything.As the numbers mount, the landscape smears across the screen. It is our answers which cause these images to move. It is our actions which are responsible for the catastrophic
change which the work depicts. “Are you worried?” “Do you feel threatened?” By turning these questions to address us directly, Turnbull turns her work into an urgent call to action.

Intriguingly, in order for Imperceptible Time to be accepted into the App Store, Turnbull had to prove that it provided “valuable utility or entertainment”. Ordinarily, this would be a strange demand to make of contemporary art. But Turnbull has embraced the need for art to provide a service – not only to its viewers (should that be users?) but also to the world we live in.

Conventional images of the Arctic eschew all traces of humanity – not only as active agents of change but also as creators and consumers of the image. The one thing the eye does not see is itself. “Needing to see to believe is a real human fault,” says Turnbull, as she inverts the conventional relationship between subject and object. Here, the Arctic is no longer a passive object in the viewfinder of a magazine photographer or under the
microscope of science. Instead, we must answer before the lacerated eye of an anthropomorphised Arctic. We are being watched. How will we respond?