In the summer of 2009, conceptual/installation artist Osman Khan said yes to a job offer at A&D, with one condition: in October he would need to take a two-week leave from teaching to travel to the Arctic Circle.
Osman had already been accepted to a “floating residency” that would take place on a 100 year old steel-hulled schooner named the Noorder Licht. He, along with 13 other artists and 2 scientists, would live together in the cramped quarters of the ship as it traveled through Svalbard, an archipelago of islands located north of Norway, well within the Arctic Circle.
There were no rules to this residency and no requirement to make work. Osman saw it as a chance to make conceptual art – a way to respond directly to a landscape that was dramatically remote and yet, as the ice caps slowly melt, a living signal of global warming.
With a hero’s bravura and a jester’s sense of irony, one of Osman’s first acts was to lasso two ice caps together in order to “save them” from global warming.
He had in mind the fictional story of the young dutch boy who saves his village from catastrophe by sticking his finger into a leaking dyke. He explains, “In Mary Dodge's tale, the boy stays plugged in for the night until others from his village assist him. I wondered, how many icebergs need to be tied before we take notice?”
Though the captain thought he was completely mad, he set out on the rough Arctic waters in a small zodiac boat, armed with a hand drill and 50 feet of rope. The task turned out to be more dangerous than he thought. “The boat was very slippery and cold, and not being able to use an electric drill to insert the ice screws was hard. All I had was a hand drill. I was scared for the first mate who came along with me, but strangely I wasn’t scared for myself. We eventually managed to insert the screws and tie the rope.”
Osman is intrigued and amused by this particular combination of heroism and foolishness. It was a pathetic individual action in the face of a massive global problem, but it was an action.
“The first mate thought I was a bit off,” he says, “but later he was asking me, 'if I used a laser to carve a pattern into a glacier, would that be art?'"
For Osman, this act itself was art. "I was completely satisfied in the moment. There was no need to make a 'product' or communicate. All my actions there were personal and... complete, somehow. If anything, the documenting I did took me out of the experience."
Osman made other “gestures” responding to the environment, not just the aesthetics of the place (which were unlike anything he’d seen before), but addressing the relationship of human beings to this place and to the issue of global warming in general.
In another project, the Polar Bear Rescue Society, Osman created a “life raft” for the polar bears, whose environment is shrinking as the ice melts and the food sources disappear.
He decided he would take inflatable pool toys, fill them with water, let them freeze, peel them out of their form and set them back in the water. The idea was to reintroduce ice forms to the sea, a caravan of artificial shapes contrasting against the natural ones, as potential respite for drowning bears. It turns out he was unable to realize his idea: “In fact, I failed because it was too warm for the forms to fully freeze!”
Still, Osman was unfazed. “As I punctured the plastic tube and the water gushed out, I felt like I had killed and skinned an animal. It was an unanticipated ritualistic performance. A sacrifice to the ocean where thousands of whales once gave their lives to human industry.”
"Gola Ganda" (a kind of Pakistani sno-cone) was a generational response, 40 years later, to “revisit and replace the hyper masculine gesture of Robert Smithson's Asphalt Rundown.”
It was Oct 1969 when Smithson created his first "Flow" work, where a large dump truck released a load of asphalt down a cliff. “I kept on thinking: what happened to the land where the asphalt landed?”
In Gola Ganda, Osman replaced the environmentally unfriendly material of asphalt with the harmless yet highly artificial material of bright red Kool-Aid. Pouring the powder over a large ice form sitting on an Arctic beach, he hoped to add camp to the tradition of “environmental art.” Yet the result again, defied his intentions: the ice sucked in the Kool-Aid, creating a sinewy wash of color. The “creature” left on the beach appears raw and ravaged, dominating the cool monochrome of the land and sea like a bloody carcass.
"Beyond the Pale" reflected on another consequence of global warming impacting polar bears: the invasion of grizzly bears into what was once polar bear territory.
Osman created a crude sign, a tongue-in-cheek gesture that projects an overtly human (and yes, ineffective) response to issues of migration and territories.
Osman also set up a "pirate radio station" programmed to run 24/7 during the residency.
He notes, "There was really no one around to hear it but ourselves... but dogs will still territorially piss even if no other animal is to be found." Here Osman makes an attempt to expose the sleeping walruses to Cesaria Evora's "Sodade".
Back in Ann Arbor a year later, Osman is still responding internally to the experience of floating on a tiny schooner in the Arctic seas for two straight weeks.
“I’m not sure if there will be other work that comes from this. It really was a spiritual and life altering event for me. The solitude, the lack of color, the expanse was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I have no real desire to recreate it or document it but it is still moving in me.”
He adds: “Did you know that when glacial ice melts, it sounds like rice crispies?”
Osman will be giving a talk about his trip at Conor O'Neill's Traditional Irish Pub between 5:30 - 7:30 on October 20th and at an exhibition in Croatia in March 2011.
Listen to a story on NPR's Studio 360 on how the artists prepared for the Arctic residency.
Read an article about the trip by fellow resident David Rothenberg in the New York Times: "Artists in the Arctic".
Visit the project's website: www.thearcticcircle.org/.