River Rail Colby Issue
River Rail

Notes from the Arctic and Other Places

From the Neolithic Orkney islands and ancient Rome to the High Arctic, sculptor Bradley Borthwick reflects on architectural ruins and glacial forms.

Monolith (Slumber). Photo: Roddy MacInnes.

In the summer of 2018, I was part of an expedition sponsored by the Arctic Circle organization (thearcticcircle.org) to the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. Aboard the three-mast barquentine Antigua, we skirted fjords and coastlines and experienced landscapes that tended toward the sublime. Every day I witnessed glacial calving. Once a week I spent hours picking up plastic debris along the shores of Svalbard’s remote beaches. The sun did not set for the entire month.

As a sculptor, my practice is informed by a consideration for place and the materials found there. I seek out ancient cities, architectural ruins, archaeological fragments, and distant landscapes, intrigued by the way the ineffable qualities of a space may be bound to a sculptural object.

In the notes and images that follow, I document these experiences, reflecting on the High Arctic landscape and its material remnants alongside work inspired by ancient Rome and the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Be there evidence of either historic trespass or contemporary pressure upon a place, I imagine how the influences found will affect my return to the studio.

Monolith (Perpendicular). Photo: Roddy MacInnes.

Monolith (Slumber). Photo: Roddy MacInnes.

After encountering ancient henges and cairns in the Orkney Islands, I carved two large stone spheres, Monolith (Perpendicular) and Monolith (Slumber). I placed the first of these monoliths in the Glenveagh rift of Donegal, Ireland, the other in the Yule marble quarry of Gunnison County, Colorado. Like those in Scotland, these stones function as place markers intended for those who may happen upon them while exploring these obscure landscapes.

Roman Imperial Forum.

Pompeii vessels.

Nero's Analogue.

In Rome and Pompeii, I was drawn to liminal spaces and to the sculptural elements contained within fragmented or toppled architecture. In the Roman fora, where the façades have tumbled and now rest upon the surface of the earth, so many blocks of stone carry the carved detailing of a classical aesthetic. As a sculptor who truly enjoys the qualities of stone, I am bewildered here by sheer volume and scale, and by the psychological weight when such material presence does not offer a sense of authorship.

In Pompeii, I am intrigued by the ubiquitous clay amphorae stacked throughout the storage facilities of the city, and I marvel at the formal, sculptural qualities of these vessels.

Roman Imperial Forum.

<p>Top: Roman Imperial Forum; above: Antigua.</p>

Top: Roman Imperial Forum; above: Antigua.

My studies from Neolithic Orkney and from ancient Rome and Pompeii carry over to my research and experiences of the High Arctic. The thread binding these disparate sites together for me is materiality—be it stone, clay, ice, or plastic. These landscapes, despite vast geographic and temporal distances, bear the imprint of materials and forms found there today.

Not unlike the collections of toppled stone found throughout the Roman fora, glaciers crumbling into the sea during my time in the Svalbard archipelago brought the ancient past into immediate focus. I imagined that an hour’s worth of glacial calving might fill the whole of the Imperial Forum.

Marcello Theater.

Imperial Forum wall.

Svalbard frames.

Svalbard cabins.

Architectural remnants, whether ancient marble façades or lumber framing (introduced in the 19th century in Svalbard) share an uncanny sense of human endeavor not quite relatable to our contemporary position of detachment from materiality and craft.

Human activity tends to absorb the availability of certain resources—the reuse of architectural elements, where the material function is held strictly within its system (mortar and stone) rather than by its original ordering of parts, or the use of a natural land feature (this rock ledge) to assist with an economy of structure in a place that does not naturally provide the needed material. We seem to repeat certain decisions or pragmatics in a way that, over time, provides a record of why such decisions were necessary. Is it our very nature, for example, to push the limits of our respective resources or to simply expect more from the inherent modesty of a given circumstance?

Imperial Forum stone blocks.

Svalbard beach.

The deposition of these architectural elements functions, for me, as precursor to the plastic debris littering Svalbard’s beaches. Even as the Arctic shorelines themselves are dissolving under the effects of global warming, the plastic garbage remains, an enduring monument to modern consumption and human presence.

Marcello Theater motif.

Svalbard lapstrake transom.

This Roman motif, carved to register the center of an empire protected by its wall, is one way to establish boundaries and assert possession. The remnant transom from an early wooden lapstrake boat similarly communicates a drive toward expansion—and containment.

Marcello Theater blocks.

Svalbard iceberg bits.

Ancient architecture and Arctic landscape: each contains traces of countless one-to-one encounters and confrontations.

Marble blocks.

How, I wonder, does a stone-carving practice shift to include large blocks of ice?

As a result of my expedition to Svalbard, I now also wonder how to bring my experience of Arctic ice into my practice and into the space of the museum or gallery. I want to utilize the sounds exerted by glacial formations, where the water sparkles, the ice bubbles and pops, the snow slides down long, narrow chutes, the sound of rock tumbling leaves pale gray paths down the façades of these coastal mountains. I want to explore the vast but ever-diminishing space of monolithic ice as it melts to reveal the wares bound within.

Firn concept.

The presence of monolithic ice will alter the temperature of the gallery, mimicking the consistent daily temperature of 2°C aboard the Antigua. The gallery will warm as the ice blocks melt and the gallery floor floods. The installation is its own tipping point.

I am reminded of The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald. The novel’s narrator brings the reader through the whole of the English countryside, recounting histories and details from within an acute awareness of landscape. Here he is walking through the River Yare valley:

Save for the odd solitary cottage there is nothing to be seen but the grass and the rippling reeds, one or two sunken willows, and some ruined conical brick buildings, like relics of an extinct civilization…it takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.

I had a similar experience when I visited the surge glacier known as Wahlenbergbreen. From my notes:

...sitting atop a gentle ridge of glacial moraine adjacent to this surge glacier...

...surge glacier pushing forth up to sixteen metres per day, with pressure pushing an incredible amount of snow together—vertical stacks, as a new mountain formation…

...changing, scraping the landscape underneath with nearly 45,000 years of formation...

...so much anticipation for the face to calf off into the ocean, with intermittent collapses heard—strange, foreign sounds with no visual or identifier...

...a 30–40 tonne boulder falls from the Wahlenbergbreen edge—a huge stone scooped there by this advancing glacier...

...we have been sitting in silence for ten minutes or so—this boulder falls in one moment

...how is this moment possible?

...450 centuries of a process and boom, here we are to witness some beautifully absurd sense of timing...

Viewing monolithic ice within the boundaries of the gallery space may force us to acknowledge our own place within the history of the planet. Once the ice is melted, what will the remnant wares of our own time communicate?

Firn concept with multiples.


Bradley Borthwick

Bradley Borthwick received his Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University. Currently, Borthwick is an Assistant Professor of Art at Colby College. Studies of ancient cultural form influence Borthwick’s studio practice—sites in Rome, Italy, and the Orkney Islands, Scotland, have informed the installation of his sculptural works at galleries in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine.


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