Bouvetøya

‘quando n’apparve una montagna, bruna                                                                                                            per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto                                                                                                                     quanto veduta non avea alcuna.

Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto tornò in pianto;                                                                                                         chè della nova terra un turbo nacque,                                                                                                                                  e percosse del legno il primo canto. 

Tre volte il fè girar con tutte l’acque:                                                                                                                                alla quarta levar la poppa in suso                                                                                                                         e la prora ire in giù, com’altrui piacque,

infin che ‘l mar fu sopra noi richiuso.’ 

Dante’s Inferno, the Ulysses Canto

Bouvetøya at Space in Between is an exhibition about the most isolated place on earth, an island in the Antarctic of the same name, which possesses a human history that is at once precisely documented and romantically fabricated.

Artist, Freddy Dewe Mathews explains that Bouvetøya lies somewhere between the realms of fiction and reality; it has been both the imagined setting for Alien vs Predator, at one extreme, and the subject of detailed scientific explorations. Dewe Mathews has negotiated these two ideals, blending the decipherable lines between them by bringing together archive materials with his own sculptures and overlaying this with a sound piece narrating a potentially fictionalised expedition to the island.

The exhibition takes its backdrop from the luminous iced blue of the archive photographs along with the neat blue of log books from real expeditions. Although this physical paraphernalia represents the technical records of the island, they are also the stimuli for our own fantastical adventures when juxtaposed with Dewe Mathew’s geometric concrete castings or his wall-based work.

For the exhibition Dewe Mathews has had to carry out his own scientific research, looking into accounts of expeditions to the island and the online archives of the Norwegian Polar Institute which he admits has been “a very different learning process”. The archives represent what Dewe Mathews’ describes as the “quantifiable mass of stuff on a place” which helps to bring the drifting, distant landmass of Bouvetøya closer to us here in Space in Between, in Hackney. 

The exhibition feels like something of a personal quest made by the artist in his studio towards Bouvetøya. What the viewer is left with are the relics of an expedition which will either satisfy our faith or confirm our disbelief.

Dewe Mathews’ concrete cast sculptures are made from a process of mould-making which builds around negative form, “creating something by creating everything around it.” They are in reality a casting of the impossible, a physical relic of a place he never reached.

In working towards this exhibition Dewe Mathews has found a parallel between his process as an artist and the journey of an explorer, “that’s part of being an explorer; you grapple with a small amount of facts and from this you begin to dream and imagine what you might find there. The reality is always a lot further away, and that’s a bit like making work.”

The real appeal of the exhibition is in the universal romance of the remote, the isolated, and the virgin possibility glimmering within this which offers discovery. There is a quest to be pursued in the frosted-blue beauty of the photographs of Bouvetøya and its temptation seems to be at work in all of us in some way or another.

Bouvetøya appealed to Dewe Mathews as “an extraordinary place in what it could stand for” and he explains that the work is “deliberately open” so that each individual viewer can read their own yearnings and ambitions into the exhibition’s narrative.  In the lift just outside the gallery a white meteorological balloon takes the light, “its blankness leaves it ready to be interpreted.”

For me Bouvetøya was a reminder of Dante’s Ulysses in the Inferno because of its interest in the gap between illusion and experience. Dante’s Ulysses is a deluded hero who leads his crew to their death in pursuit of a mountain which, darkened by distance, appears higher than any seen on earth before.

When Dante eventually reaches this same mountain he finds that it is nothing more than a small promontory and that Ulysses’ noble heroism was merely a dream.  As Dewe Mathew’s says, “The feeling of a dream is very different to the feeling of reality.”

Bouvetøya is on at Space in Between until 27th October and is funded by Arts Council England.

This is a copy of an article published in October’s Hackney Citizen

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