Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.
There is a place in the far north of Scandinavia, north of the Arctic Circle line, where weather and time have carved a world like no other. In the months that mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next, the sky shifts into darkness. Each day, a calculated eight minutes of sun is lost, until there is no sun left to lose. It is a reminder of the tilted axis of the earth we must endure, when part of our world turns its back to the light.
In September of 2014, I traveled to Giron (Kiruna), Sweden, where I would reside for ten months as a Fulbright Fellow. Hosted by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF), I began an ongoing creative project working alongside space scientists, Sámi reindeer herders, and a neuroscientist who studies the eyes of Arctic reindeer. This body of work, Until There Is No Sun, includes photographs and videos, as well as collected artifacts that speak to the experience of being immersed in these worlds colliding; the resulting work is a world unto itself, revealing relationships I encountered in this place: dualities of light and seeing, earth and sky, science and ancient myth.
For ten months I inhabited a top-floor office in the PhD corridor at IRF. A small note on my door read: Clare Benson—Artist, Fulbright. Throughout the building were remnants of explorations and discoveries, maps and charts, mechanical devices, apparatuses that appeared to have traveled to space and back, some frayed at the edges, others nearly blown apart. Upon descending the staircase at the main entrance, one could look down into a full-scale model of Sweden’s first satellite: Viking.
Beyond the parking lot of the institute was a mountain we would climb, through dense forests, with wood-beam bridges providing passage across damp, moss-covered ground. The city of Giron rested ten kilometers east of us, surrounded by a set of mountains being mined for rich veins of iron ore.
When I learned of this northern region, it was in the context of the Indigenous Sámi community that still thrives there. According to their rich mythology, the first Sámi descended from the sun, and their constellations tell the story of an epic reindeer hunt. For thousands of years, they have made a living as hunters and semi-nomadic reindeer herders, and still today share a deep connection with the land. Upon my arrival, I began meeting and working with Sámi artists, story tellers, scientists, miners, healers—all of whom had direct or familial ties to reindeer husbandry as a contemporary way of life.
Something about this place had called to me—this space where two wildly disparate (but wildly connected) communities maintain a strong presence, side-by-side; a space where time could be collapsed (or infinitely expanded); merging past and future, science and ancient myth.
I came to understand the very intricate nature of time in this Arctic landscape. As I arrived in the fall, many warned of the darkness that was to come. Soon, I would be pulled into that changing light. I read somewhere that in the Arctic, a year is like one full day stretched out; seasons ticking by like hours on a clock—one very long day. At night, we walked out onto the roof of the building and watched the northern lights. On that roof I noticed a lens that looked out from inside, beneath the reflective curve of a dome-window. It was what the scientists called an All Sky Camera, and it made an image every minute of every night, only at night, and of the entire sky. I became fascinated by this device and its animated qualities—a shutter that seemed to move even more like the blinking of an eye; a creature that sleeps through the days of summer and wakes, opening its slowly blinking eye, to the winter night.
The lens of this camera is an extreme wide-angle (8mm), which generates a circular image—an exaggerated version of what we know as a fish-eye. Scientists use these images to observe patterns and frequency of the aurora borealis and varying cloud formations, among other things. I soon gained access to an archive of skies—decades of skies—and I created time-lapse videos from the images. When set in motion, they appeared to be another earth. A series of cloud-covered skies lit from below with artificial lights glowed orange and appeared to be another planet, spinning. I imagined each night was another world turning around another star.
At times, when I stared into these images, I saw anatomical drawings of the human eye. I began collecting old scientific illustrations, maps of bodies and outer space—as humans tried to understand them long ago. I tried to comprehend the notion that time itself is a measuring device; that with time, knowledge and discoveries turn to legend and ancient myth.
Continuing down this thread of curious exploration, I came across a scientific study that determined there was something particularly unique about eyes of Arctic reindeer. This research found that the physical structures within the eyes of the reindeer shift from summer to winter, allowing them to see more or less light in conditions that change dramatically throughout the year. The structure is known as the tapetum lucidum (TL)—it is a reflective tissue behind the retina that in the winter is a deep blue, and in summer shifts to be a golden yellow. There were photographs included in the research study—snapshots which only aimed to get a general point across; the shift was clear enough. I contacted the lead scientist, maneuvered logistics, and traveled to London to discover and photograph these findings in high definition.
Beyond the scientific aspects of the image, which tell of vision and optics, the view of these structures is a visual proof—a body-map—of where the earth was in relation to the sun—that last light that the reindeer saw—and how nature communicates and adapts to its surroundings.
Over the course of that year, I learned that when people speak about darkness in the Arctic, they speak of two different kinds. The first is the kind of darkness that is visible; the kind that renders much of the world around us invisible. The second kind of darkness is the one that you feel—the one that leaves you searching.
Support for this ongoing project has been provided by the US Fulbright Program, the Swedish Fulbright Commission, the American Scandinavian Foundation, Scandinavian Seminar, and the Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) of San Francisco.