Winter 2010 | ArteZine

Silent Continent


I have never fully experienced silence until Antarctica.

Having isolated myself from the group I was with, I came to realize that I could hear absolutely nothing. The sense of stillness in itself was at once peaceful and overwhelming. One’s natural instincts are to strain to hear, to find some sound that is familiar, but there was nothing, only a landscape of unutterable beauty. Gradually certain sounds could be perceived, but they were internal, the sound of my own breathing, and sounds that came to mind while looking. In certain landscapes and conditions, the silence was accompanied by a visual “white-out”, when clouds met the ice and the horizon disappeared, leaving one unable to discern a sense of space or scale. When experienced simultaneously, this was one of the most extraordinary and unsettling sensations of all: a formlessness into which the body was subsumed, all known reference points rendered intangible.

Of course Antarctica is not completely silent, or monochrome, but it was especially within those moments of silence that the environment felt closest to a neutral zone, unfettered by sound as an indicator of cultural context. There was no music, language, urban noise, or any visual reference to borders; one could imagine that this was a truly apolitical space. This utopian image of Antarctica is maintained in the popular psyche as the seventh continent at the end of the world, owned by no-one. The reality of both the race to the pole [1], and the more recent Antarctic Treaty [2] is more complex, and when encountering the research stations of countries including the Ukraine, United Kingdom and Argentina, the presence of “nationality” and related notions of territory become more transparent.

This moment of absolute abstraction is something one can imagine but not truly understand until experienced [3]. Outside these periods of “sensory immersion”, Antarctica, with its dramatic ice forms against sea and sky, seems like the ultimate Romantic landscape in its grandeur and monumentality: one of the few wildernesses yet to be truly conquered. For early explorers, this was a common way of viewing the continent without yet knowing the incredible harshness of its climate or the actual physical sensations one might have in that environment. Similarly, as a continent that had not yet been visited, explorers could only guess how Antarctica might “sound”.

For those of us who live in technology saturated worlds, it is perhaps unfortunate that the omnipresence of film, video and other media means that any apparent moment of “mental silence” is brief. Conditioned to experiencing vast and dramatic landscapes within the context of cinema and other media, the mind involuntarily introduces a kind of soundtrack when experiencing these environments visually. Outside of this involuntary reaction, the so-called “silent continent” has inspired musicians and artists to consciously create responses that range from the ambient to grandly reverential. Ralph Vaughn Williams, who wrote the background music for the 1949 film Scott of the Antarctic, later arranged elements of this into Sinfonia Antartica which premiered in 1953 and was, fittingly, his seventh symphony. Vangelis’ more ambient Antarctica, which he produced for Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1983 film of the same name, veers more into the domain of mood music in an attempt to suggest the sublime.



To a degree, these various compositions echo perceptions of Antarctica that were informed by the time in which they were made, from the heroic and dramatic, romantic to sublimely serene, to contemporary sonic pieces that communicate more than physical or emotional attributes. Recent works by composers and artists are more layered, and at times dissonant, reaching beyond references to nature itself to the position Antarctica occupies in the larger imagination, or to discussions around the environment, and depictions of race (or otherwise) in those earliest explorations. Pierre Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t [4] is based on the artist’s month-long visit, ostensibly to find an elusive white animal on a formerly uncharted island that emerged only as a result of global warming. Held in Central Park, New York in 2005, Huyghe’s orchestral presentation was not meant to simulate the actual experience of being in Antarctica. Rather, its score by Joshua Cody was based on sound data derived from the island’s topography, presenting a new interpretation of the sound of the place. Not long after, Paul D. Miller/DJ Spooky’s “acoustic portrait” Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica [5], evoked historical imagery as well as his direct observations, and affirmed Antarctica as a place that is anything but still, or untouched. His composition, drawn from the acoustic qualities of ice, is multilayered, dynamic and shifting, suggesting the impact of climate change on this vast continent and, by implication, the global set of economic and geopolitical forces that have contributed to, and that will affect the future of, Antarctica’s condition.

As Werner Herzog commented in his recent film Encounters at the End of the World [6], 2007, despite knowing about the presence of scientific personnel on Antarctica, he was nonetheless disappointed to find the first base he visited did not fit the romantic image of the place, but was instead dirty and industrial-looking. His film goes on to show Antarctica as a dynamic entity, both in the sense of the species it hosts, and in the sense of its own intrinsic movement. The image of this continent as a silent landmass, long perpetuated in the popular imagination through remarkable photography and film, is no longer something that can be sustained. Yet while the aesthetic, sonic, and political realities of Antarctica take one far from this fiction, to experience, even for one moment, the sensation of true silence is extraordinary.

* Photos courtesy of the author, 1999


[1] One only has to recall the race to the South Pole that, in itself, became not just a rivalry between men, but also explicitly between nations. As a New York Times article reported in 1910, Captain Robert F. Scott clearly stated his intention “to reach the south pole and secure for the British Empire the honor of that achievement” (source: Two Nations in a Race for the South Pole, New York Times, 16 January, 1910)

[2] The Antarctic Treaty was established in 1959 “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” (source: Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, http://www.ats.aq/e/ats.htm). “The Antarctic Treaty freezes, and most states do not recognize, the land and maritime territorial claims made by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom (some overlapping) for three-fourths of the continent; the US and Russia reserve the right to make claims; no formal claims have been made in the sector between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west” (source: CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ay.html)

[3] Indeed, one of the only ways in which personnel based in Antarctica can train newcomers to anticipate this sensation is to put a white bucket over their heads in an attempt to simulate the “nothingness” of a whiteout and the complete disorientation that occurs as a result.

[4] Pierre Huyghe´s A Journey That Wasn´t, organized by the Public Art Fund in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, and presented at Wollman Rink, Central Park, on October 14, 2005. Interestingly, the duration of this performance was determined by the need to “hear” the island (source: press release, Public Art Fund)

[5] Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, conceived, composed, performed by DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.

[6] Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World, 2007, Thinkfilm, 99 minutes, written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, released 2008

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