Common Work Kevin Kavanagh Gallery Feb 2023
Common Work assembles a series of videos, photographs, and sculptures and a performance developed from Elaine Byrne’s nearly decade-long Arctic research, particularly in Svalbard. It materializes her fieldwork in this most northern inhabitable land, an archipelago that is both a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. The exhibition considers the history and present of this vulnerable and complex place, where global warming is accelerated more than anywhere else on earth, intensified by the eight countries that govern Arctic land, and the forty-six countries permitted to use it for commercial gain. As the Arctic Ocean continues to melt, more of it is accessible, leading to even greater exploitation of its abundant oil, gas, and other resources. The precarity of the Arctic is visible throughout the exhibition, particularly in Byrne’s performance Walking in Ice (2022), where the artist paced on an isolated patch of sea ice in open water, pointing to the Arctic as a harbinger of profound ecological loss, with competing border claims to its ocean. In Drawing the Line (2023), the artist filmed the steady wake of a tall ship—high-masted and traditionally rigged1—as it crossed into international waters. As the ship’s crew chatters and plays music in the background, the ordinariness of this kind of expedition for those that often undertake it is noticeable, despite the extraordinariness of the place surrounding them. As a location of strategic geographical importance and natural resources, Svalbard has been the site of numerous research initiatives. The artist documents the remains of one of these in Drawing the Line—the early twentieth-century Swedish–Russian Arc of Meridian expedition’s cabin that still partly exits as degraded planks collapsed on the shore. In several works, Byrne traces humanity’s footprint on the Arctic, including photographs of Pyramiden, a deserted Russian mining town. Russia developed this settlement over fifty years. Its facilities—a playground, gym, mineshafts, hotel, and a welcome sign— still stand frozen in Soviet times as captured by the artist. In contrast to the scarring of Pyramiden’s terrain, Byrne also photographed Svalbard’s untouched vistas reflected in the sea. These landscape photographs almost appear as mirages, which occur in the Arctic, where phantom islands and mountains are produced through differing atmospheric temperatures. The essay film Fata Morgana (2023) explores one such superior mirage (known as a fata morgana), which was an infamous early nineteenth-century Arctic mountain range “discovered” by explorer Sir John Ross. This optical illusion was near an entrance to the Northwest Passage, which the British commissioned him to find. Instead of continuing his sail, he turned around at the sight of his fantasy, convinced that his then-named Croker’s Mountains made any such passage impossible. Weaving her own exploration of the Arctic with the story of Ross’s fata morgana, Byrne also includes footage from Werner Herzog’s montage film Fata Morgana (1971), which dwells on desert mirages in addition to scientifically-narrated long shots from the Arctic’s ancient landscapes. Fata Morgana questions the veracity of images and perception and the subjective construction of reality. Ross’s construction of a false landmass—possibly due to his preconceived idea that a passage did not exist—is deconstructed in the video by a psychoanalyst Dr Patricia Gherovici, in conversation with Byrne. The act of dialogue is further brought into the exhibition—dotted throughout the gallery are Victorian conversation chairs, referencing the contradictory colonial exploration and domestic policing of the body at a time when polar expeditions were at their height. These chairs with two or more seats flanking each other, intended for both private and supervised conversations, highlight the challenges to address the entangled political and ecological crises of the present. Further historical remnants—sculptures made from Arctic fossils and rocks (one fused during a Second World War German bombing) act as reminders of the fragility and environmental significance of the region. A petrified tree bark wrapped in red glass, an aggregate of driftwood, rock, and green glass, and a burnished piece of coal anchor the exhibition.