The Arctic’s Blank Canvas

Nils Strindberg of the Andree Expedition

Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art examines the region’s mystique as big business moves in.

Aman walks toward the camera as a ship trails behind. He looks small against the horizon, but the rest of the frame is white and barren, so it’s hard to tell how far away he is or how closely the ship follows. The vessel’s giant hull appears to rise and fall slowly over an indiscernible swell, but it’s actually sliding up and over sheets of ice and splitting them apart under its tremendous weight.

This scene is from a video by Dutch artist Guido van der Werve, who filmed himself walking in front of a 4,000-ton icebreaker in Finland’s Gulf of Bothnia, just outside the Arctic Circle. He calls the work Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright. With the polar ice melting and the world warming up to the idea of mining and drilling in the Arctic, van der Werve’s title addresses our fears about what’s happening—and what stands to be gained and lost—in the region.

As the Arctic shipping season—a novel concept in itself—comes to a peak in September, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art will present an exhibition titled “The Arctic—Image and Desire,” aimed at unraveling Western culture’s fascination with and anxieties about the region over the last 200 years. The Louisiana, Denmark’s premier modern art museum, 40 minutes north of Copenhagen in the coastal town of Humlebæk, has distinguished itself internationally with exhibitions that take a global view of cultural themes by pairing historical material with art from all disciplines. That such a show about the Arctic should take place in Denmark is no surprise. Along with the seven other members of the Arctic Council—Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States—the country stands to profit greatly from the area through its ties to Greenland, which is rich in natural resources and larger than all of Western Europe combined.

Often minimized on two-dimensional maps, the sheer scale of the Arctic, along with its barrenness, fuels its transcendent aura. But that mystique is eroding. Temperatures in the polar region are rising more than twice as fast as the global average, the sea ice is disappearing and new shipping routes are available. The Arctic is increasingly open for business.

Change will happen quickly. In 2010, only four commercial vessels carrying 111,000 tons of cargo passed through the Northern Sea Route. In 2012, there were 46, freighting 1.26 million tons. A new record is likely this year.

But the curators aren’t interested in taking a political stance on any of these issues (no images of a despondent polar bear stranded on a too-small ice floe here). “I [consider] the goal of museums to increase complexity, whereas the political concern is often to reduce complexity,” says Louisiana director Poul Erik Tøjner, sitting in his office in a wooden boathouse behind the museum. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors make up the wall facing the sea, offering an unobstructed view across the Øresund, which laps at the narrow dock extending from his door. Off in the distance, Sweden’s silhouette stretches to the north. “We’re a kind of meta-moral or meta-political institution,” Tøjner continues. “We provide the knowledge or sensorial experience or history of a given topic so people can see or sense things here and then talk about them.”

The first part of the exhibit explores the Arctic’s sublime beauty, starting with a series of dramatic landscapes from the British photographer Darren Almond. “We really wanted to start with just the landscape—no statement or anything,” says cocurator Mathias Ussing Seeberg. From there, the exhibit is divided into sections that examine the Arctic’s offerings for the scientific community, and the way “southerners” have portrayed the native population through, for example, films like Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, from 1922. The show will also cover the allure for explorers—seeking the Northwest Passage, or simply glory—as well as cartographers, going back to Gerardus Mercator, who in the 16th century pictured four islands around the North Pole (see opposite page, top left). “What you don’t know, you imagine,” explains Seeberg. “Nobody had been there. Still nobody, or hardly anybody, has.”

The popular imagination of the Arctic usually relies on visuals of harsh white landscapes. But one of the most compelling elements in the exhibit is a pitch-black room dedicated to a soundscape designed by the Danish artist Jacob Kirkegaard. Recordings of ice sheets falling into the sea, melting or scratching against one another rise from precise points on the floor. Even if the deadly cold is absent, standing there in the dark listening to the otherworldly sounds might be the closest thing to traveling to the Pole. The experience offers a shockingly new, aural dimension to our conception of the region.

“You talk about Arctic climate as a very delicate thing, almost like it’s a small polar bear, something we have to take really good care of because it’s really fragile. And when you go there, it’s so disinterested in us!” says Tøjner, who traveled recently to Greenland. “And the scale is so crazy! If you fell down with the helicopter and weren’t killed by that, you would survive for a day, and then you’re gone.”

As the Arctic becomes the last frontier of globalization, we will increasingly confront this feeling of smallness. It’s why the stranded polar bear works as an image—because it gives us the illusion that we’re in control of global warming and that the Arctic, no matter how massive and deadly it may be, is waiting to be rescued by us.

Yet, as Seeberg says, “the less mystical it is, the more scary it becomes. The fact that we know what it is and it represents makes it scarier, because now we’re so afraid we’re going to lose it.”

“The Arctic—Image and Desire” runs September 1 to February 2, 2014. At Gl. Strandvej 13, Humlebæk; louisiana.dk.