Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
New Zealand – London, June 2001
The day before Claire Malpass was due to fly to London, she found some old photographs in the drawer of a desk she was clearing. There were about a dozen of them, all black and white. They had been bundled together and fastened with a rubber band. When Claire slid off the rubber band and fanned out the photographs, a montage of ice, rock, and clouds covered the surface of the desk. She examined the photographs more closely. The photographs didn’t only show landscapes; In some of them she could see what appeared to be a hut, buried to its eaves in snow, while another included the wing of an aeroplane surrounded by figures in bulky fur-lined parkas. There was even one where a ship could be seen in the distance, a line of steam from its funnel lying across the horizon.
The desk had belonged to Claire’s mother. She had probably retrieved it from Claire’s grandparents’ house in the Port Hills when the house was sold after her grandfather’s death. Claire guessed at once that the photographs were of Antarctica, and that they had been taken by her grandmother, Ann.
Claire’s grandfather had been an engineer in a prominent Christchurch firm. He’d purchased the Cashmere house when he and Ann were married. Ann was his second wife; his first, Claire’s biological grandmother, had died in her forties. The house was a bungalow, built in the 1920s with the kind of arts and crafts details in fashion at the time: a verandah supported by pillars of rough-hewn stone, nooks and alcoves designed to hold pots and pictures, and a wide expanse of bay windows in the sitting room.
Claire grew up in a 1960s weatherboard home, and the Cashmere house held an almost magical appeal for her, like something from an older world of charm and luxury. She loved the details of the wood paneling and the leadlights. She admired the big bay windows in the living room, where on fine days you could see clear to the distant Alps. Most of all, she was fascinated by the mysterious figure of her mother’s stepmother, Ann.
When Claire was eleven or twelve, her teacher told the class about the race to be first at the South Pole. Bursting with pride and importance, Claire could hardly wait for the teacher to finish talking so that she could announce that her grandmother, too, had been to Antarctica.
‘Really, Claire?’ her teacher responded. ‘That’s an interesting story!’ Claire was hurt. It was obvious that the teacher didn’t believe her. But as Claire became more insistent and almost tearful in her attempt to make herself believed, the teacher’s manner grew increasingly cool and unconvinced.
Perhaps that early experience of not being believed had planted a doubt in Claire’s mind. The doubt persisted despite the assurances of her family that the stories she’d been told about her grandmother were true, and that there were photographs to prove it.
Claire was a keen reader, and as soon as she became a teenager she began to work her way through the library’s histories of polar exploration. What she was subconsciously looking for were references to Ann, or the expedition she’d been part of – the Farlight expedition. Yet even in the histories dedicated to the more out-of-the-way polar expeditions – the Japanese one led by Nobuse Shiroke, or the Scottish expedition which had left the enduring image of a Scotsman with bagpipes serenading a penguin – an absence of references to the Farlight expedition reinforced a sense of its unreality. Even when the expedition was acknowledged, the tones in which it was described tended to be dismissive. Carlson, the chief contender in the air race to reach the Pole, was praised for giving Antarctic exploration its modern, scientific form and rationale. In contrast, the Farlight expedition was presented more as if it were a stunt: an unscientific or even outlandish attempt by half a dozen young women (the fact that the expedition leader, Nord, had been an actress, was frequently mentioned) to show that they could wear trousers and fly planes. It was as if the expedition didn’t fit the standard narratives of polar exploration, which had to be stretched or distorted to accommodate it and in the process were rendered strange: like a familiar scene viewed through an unfamiliar lens. And of course, it all seemed to belong to a different era: the age of cocktails, the League of Nations, and thrill-seeking Bright Young Things; the last gasp of frivolity and idealism destined to be quashed by the Great Depression and the lead-up to war.
So the photographs in the drawer brought back mixed memories. Of Ann, her dark hair fastened with a clip, gazing down into the lens of her beloved Rolleiflex. Or wreathed in smoke from the cigarette that rested between the fingers of one hand as she studied contact sheets. This must have been an early photograph of Ann, who, unlike Claire’s grandfather, had given up smoking when evidence emerged that it was bad for your health; the only souvenir of those early, smoke-wreathed days were the cardboard boxes that had once held Egyptian cigarettes, and which Ann had used to store everything from buttons to drawing pins.
Claire’s mind was occupied with last minute packing, ensuring that she had everything she needed for her journey. She didn’t have time to think about the photographs properly, or surrender to the pull of the past. She should probably have made an arrangement for her mother to come and collect them. Instead, she tucked them inside the pocket of her laptop case and took them with her to England.
Claire had been in London for almost a fortnight before she was reminded of the photographs. Unexpectedly, it was a chance visit to an art gallery that brought them back into her mind. The gallery was a small, private one in Islington, near the hostel where Claire was staying. Claire didn’t make a habit of viewing exhibitions of contemporary art, which she often found frustratingly cryptic – like a conversation in a language that only the initiated could understand. So walking into, rather than past the gallery, was a sign of her decision to be curious and experimental: a declaration, if only to herself, that she was embarking on a new phase in her life, here on the other side of the world where old habits and self-imposed restrictions no longer applied.
The gallery, which appeared to occupy a converted shop, had two small rooms. The bigger room, beyond the reception area, held an exhibition by an artist named Pia Morrow. The name of the exhibition, printed in large black letters beneath the artist’s name, was Mariage Blanc/White Wedding.
When Claire walked into the room and saw that there were no artworks on the walls, she understood after a moment’s confusion, that Pia Morrow’s Mariage Blanc/White Wedding was an installation: that the room itself was the artwork.
The artist had used the high, white walls of the gallery to create an impression of cold, almost glacial light. The impression was enhanced by a pair of wooden skis, mounted on one wall in the shape of an X. Opposite the skis was an unframed photograph showing a view of mountains with high, white slopes. It had been hung high on the wall, as if to suggest a view glimpsed from a window of snow-covered peaks and valleys.
Arranged around the room were packing cases stacked on top of each other to form pedestals. Each one held an object. On the pedestal nearest to Claire there was an ancient glove made of animal skin with its fur still attached, like a relic from a museum, or some primitive burial site. Other pedestals supported an antique camera, a box containing an old-fashioned compass, and a botany textbook, open at a page that showed an illustration of lichen.
Claire puzzled over the first part of the installation’s name - White Wedding. The room was certainly white, but where was the wedding? Yet as she gazed and pondered, the room and its objects seemed suddenly to come into focus.
The artist, she saw, had assembled a collection of objects that alluded to the traditional elements of a wedding, yet were subtly different, as if chosen for a ceremony in a remote polar setting. The crossed skis occupied the place where a crucifix would traditionally have hung. They gave the austere white walls of the gallery the air of a chapel. The antique camera might have been waiting to photograph the wedding party. Instead of a bouquet of flowers, there was a botany text-book lying open on an illustration of Arctic lichen; instead of a ring a compass, and in place of a bride’s white gloves, the bulky, fur-lined mitten.
Claire knew just enough French to recall that mariage blanc was the term for a marriage of convenience – an unconsummated marriage. It didn’t mean the same thing as ‘white wedding’ (wasn’t that a formal wedding with all the trimmings?). But the dissonance seemed appropriate. Somehow the work contrived to be both chaste and erotic, each object conveying a kind of mute passion. The fur-lined mitten suggested both touch and insulation from touch; the round compass nestling in its velvet-lined box held connotations of adventure, discovery, and wandering, but also of the desire for a fixed course or orientation. Even the botanical illustration, with its associations with both science and an almost Edwardian delicacy, seemed to speak a double language of boldness and reticence.
Yet as Claire lingered, allowing herself to be absorbed into the silence of her surroundings, she realized that what she found most haunting about the work was the absence of the actors who might have inhabited this scene. As if these few, somehow mysterious objects were mementoes of an event that might never have occurred. Or if it had occurred, had been subsequently erased from memory.
Claire remembered her mother repeating one of Ann’s reminiscences about the Farlight expedition’s midwinter party. To celebrate, they had drawn up a map of ‘The South Polar Republic’, which they filled with a mixture of real and invented landmarks. These included a capital named Frogetshaven which, with the pardonable egotism of explorers, they situated at the exact point where their own hut was located. For the rest of that winter, her mother told her, the map had hung on one wall of the hut and they had added new landmarks as they thought of them.
Claire had been fascinated by the story of the map. She wanted to know if it still existed and, if so, who had it. Her mother had shrugged and said that she had no idea. It was just something that Ann had mentioned to her once. Claire had experienced an obscure but intense disappointment, as if some great treasure had been lost. Yet she also dimly sensed that for her mother it didn’t matter whether the map had survived or not, that it was the idea of the map that mattered, and not its material existence. It was one of those strange moments of dislocation, like discovering that there were two ways of writing her name, Claire, and that both were correct.
That evening, after checking her email in the internet café attached to her hostel, Claire began to search for references to Mariage Blanc/White Wedding. Pia Morrow, she discovered, was a Swiss-born artist who specialised in installations, video work, and digital collage. A link took Claire to an image of Mariage Blanc/White Wedding that had been taken in a Swiss gallery. The installation was subtly different to the version Claire had visited that day in Islington. On the same site there was an interview with the artist. Pia Morrow said that the idea for Mariage Blanc/White Wedding had come from a footnote in a book written by her great-aunt, Constance Mertz-Breuer. The footnote referred to a ceremony that was rumoured to have taken place in Antarctica during an expedition in 1930, at which two women had been married in a mock wedding ceremony.
Claire stilled a surge of excitement. It had to be the same expedition - what were the odds of there being two? She clicked through a series of web pages until she found one with contact details for the Swiss gallery that represented Pia Morrow. She copied the address and pasted it into a new email message. Quickly, she wrote a message explaining that she’d recently visited the gallery in London where she’d seen Mariage Blanc/White Wedding. She explained that she was a New Zealander, and that her grandmother, a photographer, had gone to Antarctica in the late 1920s as a member of the Farlight expedition. She referred to her recent discovery of some of her grandmother’s photographs, and added that she would be interested in any information Pia Morrow might have about her great-aunt, Constance Mertz-Breuer. Then, before she could have second thoughts, she clicked the ‘send’ button and watched her message vanish into the ether.