From My House to Antarctica: Imagining the great unknown Annalise Rees South Australian Museum,
Growing up, artist Annalise Rees developed a strong sense of the presence of Antarctica, 5,320 km to the south of her home on the southern coast of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Too far away to be seen, but eminently present in the freezing winter winds that scoured Rees’s island, the vast icy continent has always been on the edge of her consciousness. Her sense of that looming, unseen presence is very much a part of the work in her recent exhibition at the South Australian Museum. Rees has based the objects and drawings in From My House to Antarctica on the museum’s Mawson Collection: maps, charts, notebooks, photographs and artefacts from Douglas Mawson’s exploratory journeys on the great southern continent. It was the maps and charts that caught her imagination most of all, as much for what they didn’t reveal as what they showed. Every map or chart carries elements of the real but inherently cannot deliver every aspect of the real environment. As such, each map carries a sense of mystique, offering a fragment of the real and requiring our imagination to supply the rest of the information. Subjective, as well as objective, choices have contributed to the making of the map, and we make our own choices about how we understand what we see in the map. Rees has been very deliberate in her choice of source material and how she has utilised it in the work on display. All her works in this exhibition are derived from real objects, be they Mawson’s maps, charts or photographs, but she has played with her perceptions of the imagined environment, drawing on what she does not and cannot know of the real place, having not been there. A theme throughout the exhibition is what the artist sees as the ambiguity of Antarctica—a continent that, as the scientists will tell us, has much to do with global ocean temperatures and sea life, and a place of stark beauty that is harsh and unforgiving of the fragile humans who seek to understand it. A common thread linking Rees’s sculptural works and drawings—both schematic and representational—is a sense of vast space. Graphite works that draw their inspiration from photographs in the museum’s collection are structured so that there is an overlarge border of untouched paper, emphasising the relative insignificance of objects within the vastness of the landscape and also what can’t be seen beyond the immediate field of vision. Drawings which have their origins in charts and maps have been blown up, so that any previously recognisable geographical elements are erased, offering a sense of the great unknown faced by Mawson and his team. Historically, maps have demonstrated that they are not just depictions of place. They contain enormous amounts of information about the times in which they were made. Maps dating prior to the 15th century clearly show the prevailing idea that the earth was flat, while later maps show the influence of the church—the basic geographical information about the places they depicted was just one element of the maps themselves. Interestingly, mapping of Antarctica was not completed until the 1960s. This has offered us a contemporary experience not unlike that of the Europeans during times of great exploration: Columbus and the Americas; Hartog, Flinders and Cook and their search for the ‘great southern land’, Australia. During those times, the ‘idea’ of mysterious distant lands was as exciting as the eventual discoveries. The excitement of the quest to discover new places, make real the myths and suppositions about new territories is never very far from the surface of human consciousness. Stories of the Antarctic exploration carry with them a sense of myth and the superhuman—man battling the ultimate hostile environment. In the case of Antarctica too, there is another element. Whereas earlier exploration involved the search for new territories—land to acquire, conquer and use—Antarctica has no indigenous human population, and no possibility for colonisation other than at the current level: short-term stays by scientists and other professionals. So it epitomises the notion of the quest itself: to seek and find for the sake of seeking and finding. In the present, in this exhibition, it is Rees voicing her own sense of Antarctica as a land unknown to her, as she has yet to visit it. In discussing how her perceptions may change should she have the opportunity to experience Antarctica for herself, Rees says she believes her experience will be what she feels when she imagines the place—that she will understand the sense of insignificance and isolation within the vast scale of the continent. She says, from her conversations with scientists and researchers who have visited Australia’s base in Antarctica, that their sense of dislocation from ‘real’ life, as if they are on a different planet, is something she would also expect to feel—that the place is simply too big and strong for it to be otherwise.