North to the Art
New exhibition shows grittier circumpolar region
ANCHORAGE - Art depicting the far north often idealizes the landscapes and the lives of the inhabitants.
The Anchorage Museum aims to counter-balance that with its new exhibition, "True North," opening Friday.
In this art about the top of the world, the driven snow is not pure, the natural and the artificial clash, and hot issues are depicted in cold places.
Forty artists from Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada, Scotland, Germany, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Ukraine have photographs, videos, paintings and installations that will challenge viewers accustomed to more enchanting depictions of the north.
"I think that's interesting about artists today: they have a new role," says Julie Decker, the museum’s chief curator. "They've always been observers, but I think the new artist is not necessarily an activist, but a researcher."
Decker spent three years putting the exhibition together, and it's now attracting the attention of arts writers for national publications.
Among the unusual images, a series of photos by a Stockholm artist were meant to convey his depression.
"The winter is not always glamorous,” Decker says. “There's dirty snow; it's difficult to get around; the children's playgrounds are covered. The TV becomes dominant in the northern landscape because people spend a lot of time in the interior rather than the exterior of the world."
A Seattle photographer's take-off on the famous Ansel Adams shot of Mount McKinley makes a play on the word Denali.
"He changed the letters so that it spells 'denial.' So looking at our ecological impact on the world – tourism in these remote places and how the north is changing."
Then there's the Canadian who put together this alarming sequence of words from the Book of Revelation, making a billboard on top of barrels.
“And he made the sign so it would float, took it up to the arctic ocean and set it afloat to tell the world, even though there was nobody there to see it, what kind of calamity might be ahead if we don't take care of the Arctic, if we're not good stewards of the environment."
While the artists take a penetrating look at the north, some of them seem to question what we're doing here, even if we should be here at all.
Decker says: "And I don't think they're being naïve. I think they're saying it's a complex world. Some are saying there shouldn't be resource development, but others are saying that's part of our reality, so let's be smart about it."
On a lighter note, local photographer Mike Conti put together two looped videos of futile outdoor activities, including summertime hockey.
"There are a lot of thrill seekers that come up here and, you know, I'm one of them. I came up here for adventure, and in a sense I think of it as a self-parody, as well. I'm sort of poking fun at myself and my friends and people that I know who take it to the extreme."
And photographer Ryan Romer shows a barber chair at a subsistence fish camp in the Kuskokwim region.
"There’s remnants that you know there are two cultures that are colliding."
Clashes and contrasts run throughout the exhibition – demonstrating that while the north might be frozen, it's not static.