LONDON & NUUK was generated by my research into literature and visual arts in the Polar regions.
In 2010 I was invited to Upernavik, on the north-west coast of Greenland, to spend time as writer-in-residence at the town’s anthropological museum. Before I set off from London on a series of flights to the small settlement, I wanted to learn more about contemporary Inuit culture. How did Greenlanders respond to their landscape and heritage? How had interlopers, wearing their snow-shoes with as little grace as I would do, adapted to the Arctic?
In the British Library, I read through a musty copy of Inuit songs and folk tales, describing the lives of polar bears and humans, the shaman’s flights through air and beneath the sea. These stories had been gathered by the Norwegian explorer Knud Rasmussen while Europe was destroying itself in the First World War. I visited provincial Maritime Museums to see scrimshaw, pieces of ivory intricately carved by European whalers with images of their adventures. I read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s account of his pilgrimage from Africa to Greenland.
Greenland has a fascinating history of nomads and explorers from many nations, and the documentation to prove it. But what is happening there now? Surely, with the recent introduction of home rule, Greenlandic culture must be flourishing? I was reminded of R.T. Gould’s ominous map delineating the last known steps of the Franklin expedition. The careful cartographer depicted the Arctic, marked not by towns and villages but by caches of letters, pemmican and skulls - clues to the disappearance of the Victorian explorer and his party. These points, linked by a red dotted line, eventually peter out in a question mark set in the middle of a white morass.
Thanks to Franklin and his fellow explorers, we now know that the North Pole is a shifting entity, rather than an absolute point that can be recorded on a map. Yet despite advances in knowledge of Arctic geography, information about culture in the region is elusive. My research was as slow progress as a walk through thigh-high snowdrifts. But there were tracks before me in the snow: Inuit poet and performer Jessie Kleeman and many British artists who had felt the lure of the Pole and whose work had been altered by their sojourns there.
Historically explorers set off to ultime thule without maps. They might have half-completed charts to rely on, or merely rumours of strange, icy land formations at the edge of the world told by the few who had returned. The purpose of exploration, after all, has always been to fill in the spaces. They never knew whether or not ice would stand in the way of their vessels, nor if their end lay in starvation, scurvy or sea monsters. All exploration, including artistic exploration, needs to be conducted with a sense of risk.
I am very grateful to the artists and writers featured in London & Nuuk for recounting their experiences so vividly. I hope that a greater awareness of contemporary arts in the Polar regions will add depth to global perceptions of a continent that is rapidly becoming a one-story land. On news features we see polar bears and icebergs, or, increasingly, no polar bears and no icebergs. While climate change threatens to abruptly alter the lives of Arctic inhabitants as well as the rest of the world's population, to see only this issue perpetuates the view of medieval writers such as Pytheas and Virgil who believed only horror and apocalypse could come from the ‘ends of the earth’. The artists and writers who have been to the far north have tales to tell about the ideas, the marks and the absences they found there. They say that the Arctic changed their understanding of the rest of the world. Many believe the experience changed their lives.