A journey to Antarctica, a dive into the realm of the unreal
In February 2005, seven artists, among whom Xavier and Pierre Huyghe, the masterminds of the expedition, embarked on the Tara, a schooner built in 1989 by the explorer Jean-Louis Étienne. The twenty-seven-day expedition was a search for an unlisted island in an unmapped area. Among other things, it yielded plentiful photographic documentation as well as A Journey That Wasn’t, a 2005 film by Pierre Huyghe that was screened in various exhibitions. This is the first time these photographs by Xavier Veilhan are published in print (with the exception of a few that were included in the artist’s book Voyage en Antarctique [Travel in Antarctica], published by Éditions Bookstorming, Paris, 2006). They offer a singular, raw, and sequential perspective on this expedition. In the same way that the words used by all the participants of this enclosed journey endlessly repeat and overlap—as can be seen in the logbooks—, the hundreds of photographs that Xavier Veilhan has taken seem to tirelessly repeat these white images of an unreal space interspersed only by dashes of color of the crew’s outdoor clothing and gear. A new field of exploration has opened up for the artists.
Acting as a visual journal, Xavier Veilhan’s photographs give life to this adventure where our explorers and artists set “foot on another planet, [... on] a planet within a planet” (Pierre Huyghe). On February 8, just before the departure, Xavier Veilhan wrote the following in his logbook: “... I prepared for this trip just as I used to do when I had to take the train when I was fourteen. I had been anticipating it for several months, with uneasy pleasure. The preparations completely blanked my mind and extinguished any feeling that I could have harbored regarding Antarctica before actually starting to prepare for the journey. It is interesting to be among the first people going to Antarctica with no proper reason to do so. We were coming after explorers, militaries, and scientists, and at the same time as tourists. There is a certain amount of pressure that comes from this lack of rationale, and it is in fact the key feature of this project. Only the Moon gets more exotic than this. It hasn’t even started and is already proving to be a great trip.”
Follows an illustrated narrative of this hybrid, dream journey, midway between tourism and exploration.
Hello to all!
It is as if our team of artists—who aren’t sailors at all—needed to see what a storm is! Since we arrived, they have been continuously asking us: “But, was it really a large storm? Was it more of a large storm or a very, very large one?” The answer goes something like this: “It was a storm on a human scale. A rather big one but nothing like those storms that confound the senses, those that are more than simply storms. We faced force 11 to 12 winds on the Beaufort scale. 12 is the upper limit, which gives some perspective”. Every one of the artists related the way they had experienced the storm and soon it seemed that were hearing the stories of Cape Horners (which we have now become!). But Tara is so comfortable and sturdy a ship than from within, even when we are somewhat shaken in our berths, we simply do not really realize what is happening outside. The direction of the wind determined our landing point on the peninsula—following the strong winds, the plan was to take the shortest route; that’s how we eventually set foot on the Pitt islands. The archipelago is a famed sea leopard hotspot. We had tried to get there during the previous expedition but had been stopped by the presence of ice. We reach it under a thick rain; visibility is hardly good but we slowly penetrate the heart of this group of small islets. Pascal, our guide to Antarctica, who has already come fifteen times on the peninsula on his 22 m sailboat, Fernande, guides us through this maze. As we approach the islands, again, large icebergs dazzle our eyes and the camera film. The weather is dull and our picture-takers are delighted: “when the sun is shining, the sheer whiteness is dazzling and everything is overexposed, there is no contrast and terrain does not stand out, and furthermore, what Pierre wants in his film are dark images, fog, wind, foul weather...”
As soon as we arrived, around 8pm, Pierre went ashore to get a feel of what was there, to make contact. “I set foot on another planet. It is incredible. It is a planet within a planet.” “Brief meeting with three sea leopards that were lying on a slab of fast ice, digesting their meals. These past twenty-four hours, since we arrived in the peninsula, we have been truly blessed for dark images. We’ve had a snowstorm during the night and fog and snow all day long. The deck is buried under ten centimeters of white snow. Aleksandra is delighted and she was quick to make a beautiful life-size snowman. Pierre and a large part of the team went ashore to start shooting. Pascal, who went with them, was ecstatic. He tries to explain how unusual it is to shoot here, with this need for spots of colors or features to give a sense of dimension. Luckily this morning, at least forty sea lions have been tirelessly crawling onto the ice, diving back in the sea, and playing in the snow. Pascal confesses he has never got to see such a ballet before.
Aleksandra tries to wrap her mind around what Pascal is looking for here: “the beauty of the landscapes, the surprise of always discovering something new...” Are you an addict? He first answers “no!”, but by the end of his explanation, the answer is “yes!” Antarctica is a drug! At the close of the day, we took to the outboard to film the ship in this windy and foggy atmosphere. I am waiting for the weather to improve before leaving the maze...
Xavier Veilhan’s logbook
“The sea lions are playing in front of a gigantic tabular iceberg and other smaller ones. We see land through the mist. We are trying to find a good mooring in a sheltered bay where Pascal knows the passages and the islands. We cross a few penguins (my very first) and then see two almost flickering dots in the distance. These are apparently fenders or buoys that have fallen from a ship and that ran ashore here. At the head of a bay, the ship slides over “fast ice,” though this doesn’t bother the few crab-eater seals that are resting there. The weather is very gray; it is as if light was emanating from the ice and the snow domes. In spite of subzero temperatures, it is still raining, which makes it all seem very unreal. As we decided to set anchor there, the keel struck a rock and let out an ominous sound. We must anchor somewhere else. Not long after, we finally found a spot in the bay. Pascal offered us to go ashore on the outboard boat. Pierre, Renaud, and I put our foul weather gear and joined him. On the beach front, facing a 30 m high ice mountain, we are welcomed by sea lions. I am still shaken by the simplicity and beauty of the elements: a dark gray sea, a light gray sky, overexposed snow and ice, isolated animals that only stand out from the landscape when they move. We can make out the two masts of Tara in the misty distance. Being ashore is unsettling. It is hard to believe that we are in Antarctica. We look at one another, completely dumbfounded.”
Published in Stream 01 in 2008.