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Arctic: Culture and Climate review – visions of a vanishing world

Laura Cumming
·6-min read

There is a vision, in this magnificent show, of the strange hinterland where Arctic ice melts into the snow-covered ocean. There is no obvious distinction, indeed the water’s edge is all but invisible. What you see is a series of dark boats drawn on sledges across a white plane dotted with walruses and long-legged birds. All the images are inky black, exquisitely carved into the tusk of one such walrus, caught on exactly this kind of boat. Its ivory is beautifully used to stand in for the all-encompassing Arctic whiteout.

Carved around 1900 by a celebrated Iñupiat artist known as Happy Jack, this is not just a graceful engraving-cum-sculpture. It shows life as it was lived on Alaska’s freezing Seward Peninsula, long lines of huskies pulling kayaks, tents and vessels across the gliding ice. Children learned from these images, elders discussed them and now here we are in the future looking back at this body of knowledge carved into the tusk of a long-dead walrus that once swam in those dark seas. Man and beast, life and art: all are fused in this object.

The British Museum’s new exhibition plunges deep into the mysterious icescapes of the Arctic, where 4 million people still live in a culture shaped by the climate. There are fragments of ancient bone jewellery, discovered in newly thawed ice; sculpted figures of reindeer and caribou so sinuously streamlined as to be almost abstract. There are needles made of walrus bone and monuments of balanced stones, a kind of ancestral land art that abides for centuries, marking memories or indicating reindeer paths through the wilds. The monument in this show, made by Piita Irniq in 2019, is titled Silent Messenger.

Enthralling period films show summer festivals, where thousands of Inuit gather in immense circles that revolve like wheels in the continuous daylight. Contemporary video celebrates the stupendous skill of an artist who scrapes seal skins into ultra-fine fabric for the pleating of shoes. Watercolours imagine seals beneath the ice-bores, prints depict human beings inside walruses, like Jonah in the whale. A pair of 19th-century Russian snow goggles takes the form of an eerie face, described in glass and uranium beads.

The people of the Arctic live in the circumpolar regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia and parts of Scandinavia. There are more than 40 ethnic groups. This is made marvellously apparent in the opening gallery, which is nothing less than a catwalk of spectacular costumes from the different groups, including a navy and scarlet Sami coat with a four-cornered hat (representing the four winds that blow across the ice) and an Alaskan child’s parka of brilliant blue, embroidered in red, its hood lined with soft wolverine that never freezes outside.

A team of huskies appears to be drawing you onwards into the snowbound landscape, the dogs’ fierce beauty a marvel projected into infinite white space. This illusion is orchestrated by the brilliant Opera Amsterdam, who have designed something akin to the experience of Arctic light in the old London museum. Walk out of one gallery and you are confronted by a lone figure rising against a pink-tinged twilight: the only surviving sealskin suit for hunting whales, waterproof, inflatable and made centuries ago, standing stark and upright as the hunter.

Everything is used and in every way. Seal skins, worked upon with fine blades for many months and stitched together with seal gut, become sails so strong yet diaphanous that it is easy to imagine moonlight shining through them as mariners crossed dark waters. And sure enough, there is a drawing of just such a scene, made by a Victorian explorer. The seal’s meat is made into a hundred different dishes. Its bone becomes the embodiment of itself: finely carved into captivating silkies.

The art has a characteristic combination of delicacy and strength that seems to reflect the whole society. It runs all the way from 17th-century engravings of fur-clad drivers merrily bowling across the snow in reindeer-drawn sleds to the terrific photographs of the Alaskan artist Brian Adams, large as life and presented on lightboxes. Who could not love the powerful portrait of an Inuit woman surrounded by what might almost be fallen leaves, in glowing colours, but are in fact chunks of whale meat: a worker shown in her professional element?

Knowledge of snow is lightly scattered throughout. Here is an ancient Sami sled, shaped like a boat so that it can float, almost, through the deep powdery snows of Scandinavia. Here are snowshoes made from wood to distribute the wearer’s weight so that they do not sink into the grainy snowdrifts of western Alaska. Boots fitted with walrus-ivory crampons give vital stability on snow that has thawed and then frozen again into a luminous but frightening slipperiness.

The reindeer-fur soles of Sami boots were sewn with the fur ends pointing towards the toe to create a friction that stops the wearer from slithering. A breathtaking film of a woman making such boots shows her powerful hands forcing a needle through two layers of reindeer pelt as if it were thin as silk. Her white boots, embroidered with stars, are wondrous to behold.

The soundtrack stealing through the galleries takes you straight to the Arctic – the cracking of ice, wind blowing across water, the barking of huskies and, occasionally, the singing of historical roundelays. And there are stories everywhere you look. A wooden visor, made around 1778 to block out the sun’s blinding glare, doubled as a seal’s head, acting as an ingenious decoy. A strange soapstone sculpture condenses a whole narrative in one semi-abstract medallion, telling of a family who became stranded on pack ice. They hunted seals for food and then used the skins to build the kayak on which they eventually paddled to safety.

You might think of the Arctic as a barren, white expanse. But summer brings sea algae and plants spring into life, spreading their greenness. A wonderful wall hanging is embroidered all over with the multicoloured leaves that bud forth in the tundra. Sami men appear in a silent movie, leaping and wrestling in a meadow like some gleeful Arctic Olympics.

But there will come a time when the ice no longer forms. The Arctic is heating more rapidly than anywhere else. A devastating projection of the north pole and its great white landmass is shown vanishing fast on the floor beneath your feet. Arctic peoples are literally on the shoreline of the climate crisis. Nothing could give a greater sense of the threat to their society than this exhibition, so revelatory of their art and their lives.

And the show ends at the very edge of that ice, fading away on film, as dark figures moving about in the dusk try to haul in a fish from the rising waters. You watch with your heart in your mouth, as they stand upon this curious line – water lapping away at the ice, something solid returning to its liquid self.