The search for the perfect iceberg

Tags: Francesca Galeazzi

Work in progress by Francesca Galeazzi

Yesterday for me was a roller-coaster of emotions: determination and failure, hope and fear, anticipation and disappointment. One of my projects on board consisted of an artistic response to the melting and retreat of glaciers as result of climate change. My response was to place a park bench on a newly formed iceberg or floating ice-shelf off the fast-moving coast of West Greenland. A bench which, in its fragility and remoteness, becomes a silent witness of the dramatic changes that are occurring in the Arctic. A bench with nobody to sit on.

The brass plaque on the bench reads:
“Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto XXVI, v.118-120

[Consider the seed from which you were generated; you were not made to live like brutes, but for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.] says Ulysses, narrating his thirst for discovery that took him out of the known seas of his times.

Key to the project, the bench would be tracked in its slow and inexorable pilgrimage through a satellite device that will make it possible to locate it for months to come, through the unfamiliar frozen sea, the ever-changing scenery, the incoming uninterrupted nights. The tracker was a fundamental part of the project, commenting on our contemporary surveillance society (and on my desire to follow it from distance).

The search for the perfect iceberg onto which to place the bench started in the morning when we left the Starvation Fiord. There were some suitable small icebergs in the fiord, but the shape of the long and narrow strip of sea meant that these would have probably stayed inside the fiord, trapped between currents and tide in a cyclical movement. So I took the risk of looking for the perfect iceberg that would travel far away, across the sea, between islands and fiords. But the more we navigated away from the calm fiord, the more it became apparent that the weather was deteriorating and the strong wind was making it very difficult and dangerous to approach any iceberg with the Zodiacs.

Assembing the bench

At some point the excitement reached a peak when we found what looked like a suitable candidate, a funny shaped iceberg that looked incredibly different on its sides: a flat and welcoming beach, a rugged crocodile, a spaceship, a lavender field. It was perfect!

The search for the perfect iceberg

We launched the Zodiac in the water, with only passengers the bench and the satellite tracker (quite an absurd scene, I have to say!), to look for the best side to step on the iceberg. Back on the ship we were getting ready to jump on the Zodiac and put step on the iceberg. Marcus Brigstocke was going to do one of his routines on the bench, wearing a silver lycra outfit and reading a newspaper. So we geared up in excitement mixed with a clear sense of folly and danger!

But the wind gained strength as we were approaching the frozen creature, and it became clear that we could not approach the iceberg nor step on it. What a disappointment! What a disaster! Without giving up, we decided to sail on, further looking for the perfect iceberg (at this point the word ‘perfect’ was starting to be replaced by ‘anything that would do’) around the island of Upernivik Oe that is usually surrounded by icebergs of all sizes.

The search for the perfect iceberg continues

And in fact there were lots and lots of icebergs to choose from, the problem was that the wind was so strong that the mission would have failed immediately, the bench would be blown off the iceberg in no time! So the search went on, becoming quickly the search for a quiet corner where the wind would be more gentle and an iceberg that would do could be found. The captain and many of the voyagers stayed with me in the bridge till dusk looking out with their binoculars for the perfect iceberg in a calm area, investigating the rough sea surface with the boat’s impressive search light. Only around 8 in the evening we gave up this surreal search, knowing that from now on our planned route was going to take us away from the glaciers and icebergs, into the open sea. The search was over.

I was exhausted! But somehow also content. Content that I was not alone in this mad project, that the captain and the other voyagers supported me and tried to make it happen despite the apparent absurdity of the search. Also for some of us that was the first time that we paid so much attention to the icebergs and the sea, that we concentrated on their beautiful, wonderfully complex and ever-changing shapes to find a suitable one, that we scrutinised the sea’s colours and currents to guess where a calm spot could have been, that we felt the force of nature upon us and how insignificant our efforts were against a strong Arctic wind. And that was already rewarding.

At that point I started to feel that my project was gaining a different, and maybe stronger, meaning… it was the search that mattered, it was the effort, the determination, the non giving up at the first difficulty. It was the common effort that supported me which made me feel I was doing the right thing. And maybe the bench was an excuse and didn’t need to be left out on the ice at all. I guess we are all here searching for something and the voyage has been so incredibly intense, challenging and emotional, that has probably made the search even more urgent.

To me the Arctic bench stands for an exploration that was initially conceptual and philosophical, then turned real, scarily real, and became failure when faced the strength of nature and the limitations of our efforts. But failure is real, is human, it is part of life, so I accept it and somehow celebrate it as part of a lesson that I will hardly forget.

Thus the bench might going back to London, having ‘seen’ the Arctic, as a testimony of the search for the perfect iceberg that never materialised.

Tracking the route
Tracking the route of the bench aboard the Grigory Mikheev as I search for the perfect iceberg.

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    4 Comments

    1. Deanna J

      Posted Monday 6 Oct at 15:29 | Permalink

      Your determination, positive reaction, and ability to find victory in what seems to be defeat is very inspiring.

    2. Silvia

      Posted Tuesday 7 Oct at 11:48 | Permalink

      As Peter Gabriel says, keep moving is the only way to be stable. That’s the message, dear Francesca: it’s impossibile to sit down, now! Un saluto.

    3. tim

      Posted Friday 10 Oct at 15:05 | Permalink

      Wow. Congratulations Francesca for making it out there and stirring things up. Brilliant and bold in face of so many powerful characters. Can’t wait to hear more. Loved the story of the bench that tried to find a perfect ice berg.

      See you soon.

    4. Francesca Galeazzi

      Posted Friday 10 Oct at 18:19 | Permalink

      Thank you all for your encouragement and supportive messages during the trip.
      We had limited access to the blog comments so it was hard to respond to everybody and only now, back in London, I am going through the plentitude of comments received.
      Patrick I am not aware of any comments having been removed! Only the site administrator can do so, not me. I was told that there was a comment with insults, which I believe was taken out because was offensive and clearly not constructive.
      If you have any useful criticism, please post it again.