The Northern Passage is the first solo exhibition of American artist Lauren Hartman in St. Petersburg. The viewer is invited to reflect on the policy of humanity regarding the development of the Arctic and its possible consequences. The Northern Passage is an abbreviation of “Northwest Passage” which sea-farers of the past searched for in order to cross the seas linking America to Asia. The “Northwest Passage” became an important topic for modern art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and Herbert Wells it exists as a mythical passage to other dimensions. It also appears in French Avant-Garde literature of Lettrist poets and later the Situationists for whom it became a metaphor for their main method of psycho-geography.
The basis of the exhibition is a series of minimalist embroideries on silk. As a plot, Hartman turns to found advertising imagery of luxury tourist cruises to the North Pole. It is only during summer months that shipping lanes of the Northern Passage remain open for commerce. Despite the appeal for tourism, our relationship to Arctic wildlife remains central to fierce debate in American society. The question whether we should preserve this unique environment or allow it to be exploited for natural resources and economic purposes remains open.
The juxtaposition of idealized ads of the arctic with the technique of embroidery creates a critical effect and dissonance. In this case the surface of silk like the top layer of ice can be seen as a metaphor for the ideal attractive image. The act of embroidering is a form of trauma which breaks down this ideal state. The needle pierces the fabric in a similar way to the ice breaker making its way through ice. It gives hope for future healing, friendship and connection to new images and meaning.
In the series of fabric banners Magnetic Mountain, the artist refers to the heraldic aesthetics of secret societies in the US and Europe. According to seafarer mythologies of the past, the “Magnetic Mountain” is a mystical power of the earth which points the compass Northward. It is this power which is capable of ripping nails from ships which near the North Pole, or dragging ships into a vortex. The artist’s flags featured in the exhibition depict imagined secret plans for maritime navigation, research and warnings of possible misfortune.
Addressing ecological problems is as important today as ever, but Lauren Hartman’s method is far from the newspaper language of activist art. Through mythology, manual labor and artistic techniques characteristic of the feminist movement, we are dealing with a deeply personal and emotional understanding of what is happening to our planet.
Perhaps this is why the exhibition The Northern Passage sets such an accurate and delicate intonation at the beginning of the conversation about ecology in the territory of contemporary art.
The exhibition also features a collaboration between the artist and the Museum’s staff. Thanks to this cooperation with the Museum's archive, the exposition includes objects, prints, and maps which illustrate the history of international expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic beginning in the 1500s. Comparing ancient images of landscapes frozen in ice with contemporary transformations seen in the embroideries allows the viewer to trace the nature of changes brought by humanity to this once protected area. These changes are not always destructive and are the result of the dominance of our biological species. The history of many unsuccessful attempts of man to penetrate this unknown and the high price paid form a complex and to this day unfinished dialogue between our planet and the life inhabiting it.
Both Russia and the United States share the great responsibility for managing the Arctic, a rapidly changing ecosystem with great geopolitical significance. With the change in the northern seas, new opportunities arise for global navigation, exploitation of natural resources, scientific research and tourism. As new challenges for humanity appear unlikely to be solved by any one country or region, international cooperation is key in the fight against climate change in the Arctic. Art as the vehicle and museum as a platform can serve as the basis for dialogue around these issues with a broad audience.
Arseny Zhilyaev, Ekaterina Guseva
The banners represent the cross-cultural mythology of the Magnetic north. Myths from around the world speak of a Magnetic mountain, the center of the Universe.
For the Buryats of Siberia it is Mount Sumur which has the North Star fastened to its axis.
Buddhist and Hindu cosmology discuss Mt Meru or Sumaru as a Mountain with magnetic properties located in the center of the physical, metaphysic, and spiritual realm. It is the central magnetic point of the Universe.
In European folklore, the Magnetic mountain reappears in texts and traditions of many ages.
In the mid 16th century the German-Netherlandish cartographer, Gerard Mercator, described the North Pole as a large black magnetic rock at the center of the Earth surrounded by a whirlpool.
Dogon from West Africa and Norse mythologies depict the Northern most point as a mountain surrounded by a long serpent.
The lost book Inventio Fortunata, written in 14th century, England, describes the North Pole as a Magnetic island surrounded by a large whirlpool.
In both European and Arabian folklore the magnetic force of the mountain was so strong it could pull nails from ships!
Pizzly Bear (2017), Mixed Media
The Pizzly Bear or “Grolar” is a recently documented hybrid of two distinct bear subspecies; the Grizzly Bear or the proper “North American Brown Bear” (Ursus Arctos) which roams the North American continent and the Polar “White” Bear (Ursus Maritimus) which roams the shifting line between ice and land. As the Arctic warms and sea ice melts, Polar Bears are forced to spend more time hunting on land, pushing further into the Grizzly’s domain. For the Grizzly bear, warming climate and the melting of permafrost allows the Grizzly to reach more abundant, thawing soil. As both the Polar Bear and the Grizzly are genetically quite similar, there is strong mutual attraction. Their mating seasons overlap and they produce fertile offspring, improving their survival rate. In 2006 DNA from a bear shot in the Canadian Arctic was confirmed as a hybrid of the two species. This was the first confirmed record of the Pizzly.