SOUTH 1: 1-4 July 2004

Home Page
What's new
South 1
Proposals for South 2

Jenni Mitchell
Sunday 4 July - The Way Ahead Antarctica session

South South, or North, North; we all sleep under the same moon and rise to the one sun. I am third generation Australian, living south with blood lines reaching north to France, Germany and the British Isles. I love this land with a passion.

Salt and Ice/ Parallel deserts/ Isolation/ Edge/ Iridescence/Sublime/ Mystical/ Elusive/ Silent/ Still/ Transcendence/ Exquisite/Poetic/ Spiritual/Reflection.

These words all come to mind when I try to find the language with which to share my experiences of the Salt desert of Lake Eyre and the Ice Continent of Antarctica.

For many years I have been travelling to the arid regions of South Australia to paint the desert around the Flinders Ranges, and further to the north Lake Eyre. For most of the time Lake Eyre is dry and appears as an endless glistening white salt plain. It is very beautiful. On rare occasions, once or twice each century, the lake fills from the rains that have fallen hundreds of miles away in the north, and have flowed down through the channel country into the large inland rivers. It can take weeks, perhaps months for the water to reach the Lake; and when it does - is when Lake Eyre becomes the inland sea.

It was flooded when I first saw it in 1987. After driving for five days from Melbourne, we climbed onto a sand-hill - and there it was. My first thoughts were, ‘well I could have gone down alone the coast at home to see this…’ I could have been standing on a beach, looking out to sea.

Almost as quickly as that first thought came; something happened which I cannot explain adequately. A strong sensation struck me and I knew, from then on Lake Eyre would always be a place to which I would be connected. I am still trying to understand how the landscape affects the human psyche; and why some landscapes inspire a spiritual and uplifting sensation while other places, seemingly as beautiful, can make you feel extremely uncomfortable, unwelcome.

The western culture and Christian upbringing of growing up as a third generation Australia did not teach me to ‘read the land’; or have a sense of presence in the landscape. Our ‘stories’ and history speak of the fight, the desolation, hardship and the challenge to ‘tame’ this unruly land and it’s people. We, beat, control, gouge, pollute and rob it of its richness. Much of our southern history has been to antagonise the very land from which we are born.


My first introduction to deserts came about from three pictorial books I had as a child. There was one on the Arizona desert, the African landscape and a book of the Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira’s watercolour paintings. I used to look at these books and allow the images to transport me to these wild places of purple mountain ranges, stark white barked trees, vivid blue skies, arid earth and long horizons.

It was while walking over the salt crust of Lake Eyre that I first thought of visiting the Antarctic. The crunch underfoot of the crisp white salt, the cutting chill of the winter wind on exposed skin, the impending salt burns and snow blindness from the glare of the sun makes one think of ice and snow, and how you can momentarily think you are on a snow field and not in the middle of the Australian desert.

I began to think about the parallels of these extreme desert environments; how they converge and where they diverge. I looked at the visual similarities and searched for written material about the ‘othernesses of these wild places. There is much to read about the Antarctic experience – historical accounts, scientific journals, poetry and prose. Less is written about the romantic presence of Lake Eyre. To me, Lake Eyre represents the heart of Australia; it is the central jewel in our southern continent. Viewed from the air, it can shine like a sapphire with shards of diamond light; it can appear like slices of polished agate with multi-coloured markings left from the stains of river silt or in a myriad patterns formed by the wind.


In 2002, I made two trips to the Antarctic. The first, in February on a twelve hour tourist flight over the ice-continent and later, during the summer, sailing as a recipient of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Humanities fellowship where I worked as an artist and writer in residence.

It was important to take the flight to gain a sense of dimension. I am interested in the macro and micro element of the visual landscape and how patterns often create repetitious rhythms across the earth and are repeated from the micro and macro perspective. Taken out of context, these patterns can appear as salt or ice; until the images blur and the viewer is unable to distinguish either. The abstracted images from 10,000 feet or from a just a few inches above the surface become pure form. The convergence.

I worked by making sketches from the plane, the ship and the land, using a number of materials including; pencils, pastels, watercolour and gouache took many photographic slide and digital images. At Casey station I made some oil paintings on rag paper – this was not particularly successful as the medium separated from the paint. Although I had tested the materials by storing them in the freezer before leaving home, in the field they behaved differently.

The large oil on canvas paintings were made when I returned to the studio. Some of these paintings have been toured to exhibitions in Victoria, Tasmania and Canberra and will be shown at further exhibition in 2005

I should mention the journey…

In preparing for the Antarctic, I planned mostly for how I envisaged working when I arrived on the ice. What I had not foreseen was in fact how the voyage would become even more important than the arrival. From Hobart, the voyage to Casey Station took nine days. The ship, the MV Polar Bird was an ice strengthened cargo ship, working its last season of with the Antarctic Division. It had been in service since the 1980s and was considered by many Division expeditioners to be good for seasickness – it rocked and rolled with tenacious gusto.

The Captain allowed me to set up a studio on the ships bridge; this consisted of a bench under the port side window and the bosun’s high stool. The stool, along with my art materials were strapped down. I would wedge myself between the stool and the desk and rock and roll with the ship. Occasionally, I would get my timing wrong and be bucked off my stool, to the amusement of those on the bridge.

I loved the sea and was at my desk by 6.00am in the morning and reluctantly went back to my cabin, often after midnight. Fortunately, I was never ill. This, I put down to being absolutely absorbed by the romance of the ever changing and often wild sea tossing our ship into the air and plummeting it beneath the towering waves.

After several days and as the air chilled it was as if we were caught in a time warp, like Jason and the Argonauts, sailing into another dimension. I began to wonder if we would ever find the ice.

It came one evening when the captain picked ‘something’ up on the ship’s radar. The mist had obscured visibility to a short distance. Eventually, through the fog we could make out an irregular shaped white form. Our first ice-berg. The next morning the fog had cleared and through the grey sky, along the horizon was a white shimmer. The ‘ice-blink’ is the reflection of ice on the underbelly of the clouds and was often the first indication of sea ice to the early sailors. It was thrilling and otherworldly to enter a sea of frozen porridge. The weight of the sea ice calmed the southern ocean, and it was not unlike the images from the white frothy salt of Lake Eyre.


The book, To the Ice: Images from the Antarctic is a collection of the sketches, paintings and photographs from this journey. I would like to read a few passages that accompany some of the works.

Messenger Of The Ice

oil on canvas, 2003 diptych 122cm x 304cm

The Snow Petrel represents the messenger, travelling away from the iceberg. The whiteness of the bird can be read as a poetic symbol for the purity and fragility of Antarctica.

This is the first studio painting I completed after returning home, and at the time it seemed there was no canvas large enough to capture the enormity of the ocean.

When we saw the first icebergs on the horizon it was difficult to form an idea of their scale and magnitude. They could have been small floating blocks or bergs three kilometres long. It is even more difficult to capture with the camera or paint on canvas.

In this painting I have tried to give a sense of the veil that exists between Antarctica and the viewer. Sailing through mist and fog also detaches you from reality and leaves a sensation of unearthliness; as if you have entered another place; the land from where the Snow Petrel has been.

Midnight Sun

Oil on canvas 2003 152 x 213cm

Midnight , New Year’s Eve 2002. Everyone on the ship came up to the bridge and watched silently the magic that unfolded as the fiery ball of the sun fell behind the glass-like iceberg, on cue at 12.00pm.

We were on our first day out from Casey on the return trip to Hobart and some expeditioners were disappointed they wouldn’t be spending New Years Eve at the station - until the sky turned on this magnificent show.

It was agreed by all voyagers that there could be no more beautiful a place on the Earth to greet the New Year.

Silver Morning

oil on canvas 2003 122cm x 153cm

On the morning we arrived at Newcomb Bay, Casey Station the ship sailed through the still deep water. A silence seemed to engulf everything. The wake of the ship cut an oil-like dark silver trail, barely making a ripple. Even the ship’s captain appeared mesmerised by the beauty of this platinum water.

Intense white ice flows and irregular shaped icebergs moved eerily around the ship, as if to watch our arrival.

A thick line of blue created a bank across the silver grey sky and reflected into the silver grey water; an indicator of where the sky and sea divided.

To the horizon a band of dark rock could be seen breaking through the ice whiteness, the first sign of land – Antarctica.

Blue Berg

oil on canvas 2003 diptych 30cm x 60cm

In certain light the waters around Antarctica can appear surreal. Blue icebergs are usually rarer and occur due to the compression of old ice.

From our big red ship we watch the seals and penguins seen lolling about the larger ice floes. Sometimes they disappear quickly into the water and at other times, a seal will lift a dozy head and give a nonchalant glance as we pass by.

I wondered what it was like for the wildlife, undisturbed in their silence, to see our bright red vessel chugging from one horizon and cutting a swathe through the ice to disappear over the opposite horizon. Sometimes the penguins appeared to be chattering excitedly and saying to each other ‘what is it? Look at that look at that…’

This small diptych is the sketch for the larger painting, Blue Berg.

Ice Cave


You want to explore the ice caves for their beauty – the tunnel of mysterious blue that extends beyond your consciousness. The ice caves are the stuff of fairy tales and phantasies; places of queens and elves. Long stalagmites and stalactites extend their fragile tentacles towards the heavens and the sea.

These caves were photographed along the coast in the Windmill Islands near Casey Station.

Ice Flakes


Ice Flakes as viewed 10,000 feet above sea level. This captures the spatial abstract quality of the ice floes and tabular bergs as they moved beneath a thin cloud covering.

The sea ice is breaking up around the tabular bergs and shattering into a thousand pieces. I wanted, like the wind to shake the shards and watch them reform into new patterns.





Southern Ocean Mist


The mist obscures and softens the Antarctic summer sun.

A silver trail of light touches the ocean.

It could be anytime of day or night.

Into Ice


This image was taken from the zodiac as we nudged close to a frilly berg to taste the salty ice.

To be so close and feel the blue light glow that emanates from within the iceberg is to experience the purest, trancelike bliss.

Through this seminar I hope to make contact with other artists or people who have deserts in their country they wish to share. I can see a south dialogue with of journeys, through deserts, salt and ice.


Jenni Mitchell

Eltham July, 2004