In June of 2017 I was part of The Arctic Circle’s Summer Solstice Expedition. This residency program brings together international artists, scientists, architects and educators who collectively explore remote and fascinating locations aboard an ice-class tall ship (Antigua). The residency takes place in the international territory of Svalbard, a mountainous Arctic archipelago just ten degrees from the North Pole.
It was an experience I am still processing, taking place in an ancient landscape that bears scars of colonial expansion from industries such as whaling and mining. I felt the vastness and fullness of an expansive space, the fragility, vitality and brutality of the landscape, the twenty-four-hour daylight, the perceived slowness, the intensity of blue and grey hues, the sharpness and blurriness of focus in the shifting fog and a certain liberation from time.
My artistic curiosities are concerned with the entanglements of bodies, landscapes and power. I investigate processes of colonial contact/settlement, climate disruption, exploitative and extractive economic systems and the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples as interrelated actions that have reshaped who we are and how we live. My creative practice examines the embodied impact of ecological decline through geologic, geographic, human and historical processes creating choreographic works of diverse scopes and scales.
Currently I am working with the concept of “Great Grief” a reference put forward by Norwegian eco-scientist Per Epsen Stoknes who cites our current moment as a period of mourning. “Great Grief” is the paradoxical experience of living with disappearance, knowing that we ourselves are part of this process. We are collectively, but differently, mourning and reconciling our histories and the paths that brought us here, through our bodies, through landscapes, through communities, through shifting power structures. In this way, there is a felt experience of a more than personal sadness — an embodied distress where we process the emotional impact of our stricken landscapes in our bodies and the historical processes surrounding them. In this period of disappearing and melting, I am curious about the ways we can soften and open.
Since being accepted into this program in 2016, to its realization in 2017, much in my life has shifted. Throughout this time, I lost my husband, Patrick, one of the most incredible human beings I have ever known, at age thirty-nine, to cancer in an unexpected, but radically present way. The environment of grief and mourning and its effect on the body has become amplified in this microcosm of personal experience meeting a larger sphere of artistic questioning for this project. I questioned: How do we mourn? How do we grieve? And I have been tracing these threads through my work historically, personally and ecologically. On a more tender note, I was curious about how we pass through these experiences and how they pass through us. What might resilience look like now, in these moments of loss, disappearance, melting and change?
The photos and video stills are performances, records and artifacts of offering, of research and of listening with the Arctic landscape. Photos of Leary on the aerial rope are courtesy of Justin Levesque. All others are video stills by the artist, Brandy Leary.