Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment

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Janet Biggs: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

The Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment introduces its exhibition program with an installation of three videos by Janet Biggs—Warning Shot, 2016, Brightness All Around, 2011, and Fade to White, 2010. Traveling to the high Arctic with a group of artists and scientists aboard the Noorderlict, a two-masted schooner build in 1910, Biggs’ compositions are a clarion call for a heroic landscape that will be completely transformed within our lifetimes. As the subject of centuries of exploration by Europe and the New World, the Arctic was once seen as indifferent to human enterprise, so vast and inhospitable as to be immune to any imposition. But the mining and fossil fuel industries established a firm hold in the twentieth century, and climate change is now projected to leave Arctic summers ice-free in as few as a dozen years. 

Warning Shot – the visual ‘mission statement’ of the Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment – is an alarm and an elegy. Filmed on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago halfway between Europe and the North Pole, it memorializes a simple performative act in a vast landscape with no witnesses. Silhouetted against the surrounding mountains, a solitary figure enters the frame and fires a flare toward the horizon. Her gesture is elegant, somber, and heartbreaking, lamenting what will be lost but also refusing to surrender hope, even under the most desperate of circumstances. 

Brightness All Around was also filmed on Svalbard, at the Sveagruva coal mine. Quickly unseating our expectations about the Arctic as a pristine wilderness, it follows Linda Norberg, a female coal miner, as she begins her day by descending miles beneath the frozen surface. Besieged by deafening machinery and relying on a headlamp for illumination, she works in freezing temperatures and suffocating darkness. Serving as a counterpoint to the mechanical commotion of the mine is a vocal performance by New York music guru Bill Coleman, whose presence feels as menacing as Norberg’s surroundings. Singing lyrics taken from near-death experiences, Coleman becomes a witness to our struggle to survive under the most challenging circumstances. His performance is every bit a shock to the system as the Sveagruva mine, a jarring imposition that shatters the mythology of an uninhabited Arctic, reminding us that even thousands of miles away, our footprint sits heavily upon the land.

Fade to White examines our impetus to explore and claim remote territory. Following Audun Tholfsen, a member of the Noorderlict’s crew, as he paddles a solo kayak toward a featureless horizon, the video is laden with implicit danger. Biggs’ own will and endurance were tested during the voyage, and the tension in Fade to White captures the struggle to maintain balance and purpose in a landscape so vast it challenges not only one’s physical survival but their sense of individuality and identity. Fade to White also undoes the myth of the solitary white male explorer. Biggs explains, “The desire to hold onto the notion of the ‘great white north’ as a blank space awaiting our interpretation only reinforces the idea of the colonial polar hero. The ‘virgin’ north has now been mapped, surveyed, and mined, but increased knowledge has not replaced endless fantasies of discovery.” Tholfsen’s excursion is balanced with footage of countertenor John Kelly, whose androgyny and mournful voice parallel the vanishing Arctic landscape and our waning dominance over the land.