Edgar Allen Poe’s novel ‘The Narrative Of Gordon Pym’ (1838) evokes the belief, prior to the exploration of Antarctica, that a lost civilisation may be contained within its icy borders. Rather than the black-skinned inhabitants of deepest darkest Africa, this furthest reach of the world would reveal a race of Hyperboreans, with a culture that was foreign but comparable to the civilised West.
Poe’s tale concludes when the hero manages to escape the violence of dark-skinned natives by fleeing further south, until the waters mysteriously grew warmer…
The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
Rather than representing the end of the world, the icy wastes of Antarctica would turn out to be a means of keeping this other civilisation isolated from the rest of the globe.
Today, the artist Wanda Gillespie has revived this myth in an installation at Craft Victoria titled The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland. The story behind this work is of the discovery of wooden artefacts in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, as a result of global warming. It is suggested that these objects are from the same period as the ancient civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt. As the artist statement claims, ‘The meticulously crafted objects recovered from three initial archaeological missions suggest the culture may have been a precursor to such modern-day indigenous cultures of the South Pacific as Maori, Aboriginal Australian, Polynesian and East Indonesian.’
While the faces depicted are undeniably of European origin, the hair styles and demeanour suggest a Pacific culture, such as Maori. Gillespie surmises that these objects refer to a ceremony that attempt to ensure the safe passage of a spirit into the afterlife.
It’s a curious racial fantasy that white people preceded other indigenous groups to the South. It does have precedents, such as the notion that the Lost Tribe of Israel fled south thousands of years ago (shared broadly from Cecil Rhodes to Mormons). While the earlier fantasies had clear a imperial agenda, what does it mean to invent one today?
In Australia, the idea of one’s special relation to landscape has been largely given over to its Indigenous peoples, who are granted a privileged, if symbolic, relation to ‘country’. This is relatively easy arrangement for settler Australians as most live in cities, where there is little engagement with land, beyond real estate prices. But it would be argued that this does leave settler Australians with a undeveloped sense of place. Fair enough to give over country to traditional owners, but then what are you still doing here?
Antarctica seems immune to such issues, as it has no indigenous people. It thus provides a blank screen on which to project speculations about place and culture. One of the notable elements of Gillespie’s Hyperborean world is the prevalence of the banksia. This figures strongly in the early colonial imagination, which populated the bush with mysterious figures such as bunyips. So by this detour south, Gillespie seems to return to where she come from. She manages to imbue an otherwise sterile, commodified and urban world with the enchantment that once belonged to traditional societies, who had an active engagement in rites of passage, and believed there was something more than the sum total of individual interests.
As the world continues to warm, it will be interesting to see what more is revealed of this mysterious south.
Wanda Gillespie acknowledges Rodney Glick and Indonesian carver Made Leno (who produced the heads), writer Varia Karipoff and Alastair Boell from the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Her website is http://www.wandagillespie.com/