Reading Notes from the Arctic: an Oecologies Reading Group

Laura Hutchingame, University of California, Los Angeles
Zachary Korol-Gold, University of California, Irvine

On 16 March 2021, scholars involved with the UCHRI Oecologies research group gathered to discuss two texts: “Arctic Ink” by Christopher Heuer (2019) and “Going Glacial” by Lowell Duckert (2017).

Following introductions in breakout rooms, the group began by comparing the two readings. Each reading takes a strikingly different approach to overlapping materials. Both Heuer and Duckert grapple with the difficulty of writing about representations of the Arctic, a space that defied the vision of early modern Western explorers. The group discussed the differences between the authors’ writerly modes, and how these modes related to both the physical conditions of the Arctic, and their objects of study. Duckert writes that “this chapter will be slow, but I hope it slowly, like a glacier, does some work” (107). One reading group member observed that Duckert’s own writing reads like an “accretion of ideas,” mimicking the very materiality of ice. Duckert’s text slowly complexifies, its long strings of sentences adjoining a variety of concepts and theories. We discussed how, in contrast, rather than attempt to look through the icy materiality of the Arctic, Heuer reflects upon it. The logical clarity of Heuer’s sustained reflection foils the impenetrable density of the object that anchors his chapter, a mass of Netherlandish engravings fused into a single block from centuries of freezing and thawing. Both texts, then, take divergent paths to write about that which defies description. In light of this, one participant provocatively asked, in relation to Heuer’s chapter, “what makes this art history?” Professors Massey and Wilson, who were leading this week of the reading group, noted that early modern desires to portray Arctic space force scholars to contend with the very limits of representation. And further, the freezing of the polar ice which brought disaster to many voyages and at once preserved and ruined artifacts, complicates traditional art historical periodicity.

Discussion of Heuer’s text thereby prompted fundamental questions for early modern art history, such as: Why and how is an environmental approach useful? What are we, as art historians, doing when we direct our inquiries in this way? A theme of the discussion pertained to early modern perspective and conventions of looking. Heuer shows a context in which the early modern tools associated with vision and orientation–such as horizon lines, compasses, and the viewer’s sense of a clear position in relation to the landscape–were denied and destabilized in the Arctic. Despite this instability, over time, this “ice desert” becomes a type of landscape which accommodates the crew in their ship house, and is altered by human actions such as shoveling (illustrated by Gerrit de Veer’s engravings). Heuer’s chapter offers an instance of interruption, stasis, and confusion–an important counterpoint to typical narratives of early modern seafaring which emphasize exploration, movement, and the visual construction of space through mapping. Finally, through an icy protagonist, Heuer thematizes the instability of the printed image as well as the lack of art historical vocabulary to describe such representational disjunctures.

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