Finding true north


Two weeks ago, I traveled to Alaska for likely the same reasons most people visit: To experience the American landscape as I imagine it once was, as a place where you can't walk five yards in the forest without spying scat of predator or prey, where fish crowd the rivers and eagles wing overhead enjoying the rich pickings, where berries fruit in enough abundance to sate 600-pound grizzles.

Alaska's wilderness did not disappoint. But in a state that receives between 80 and 90 percent of its revenue from oil, wilderness is perhaps less important -- and less immutable -- than it may first appear to the average visitor. This was made very clear with a trip I took on the last day of my visit. It was a drizzly Sunday, and my companions and I opted to dry out for the day and visit an art exhibition. The show was meant to challenge some of the conventional notions of the area around the Arctic Circle -- and it did.

Called "True North," the exhibit, which ran May 18 through Sept 9 at the Anchorage Museum, displayed a host of beautiful and provocative pieces that were “attempting to define place –– not the romantic North of earlier generations but the next North, one that is connected, pivotal and conflicted,” said Julie Decker, Anchorage Museum chief curator, in a press release.

Many of the pieces deal with climate change, which, as photographer Brian Adams has documented in his series "Disappearing Villages," is already drastically altering the rural coastal villages home to many native Alaskans. Some of Adams' medium format images show transformations of the physical landscape, others are sympathetic portraits of the native people forced to adjust to these changes.

Disappearing Villages: Shishmaref, courtesy Brian Adams

The artist Tania Kitchell has made an installation of a series of painstakingly detailed plants and flowers mounted on a tabletop. You can't help but walk around the entire table, admiring the lovely plants and wishing you could pluck a few to mount atop your mantel. The catch? These lovely flowers are all invasives, brought to the region by human activity. Kitchell used a 3D printer to create the images; a detail below shows how intricate she was able to be with some of the forms.


Images of "Occupy," by Tania Kitchell, courtesy James Harris Gallery and the Anchorage Museum

Subhankar Banerjee, an outspoken Seattle-based photographer and author who has spent much time in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, contributed a stunning aerial shot of the Porcupine River caribou herd on the coastal plain where they calve. Banerjee's work has documented how oil development could impact the herd and the native people, the Gwich'in, who depend on the caribou for sustenance. (HCN recently reviewed a new book edited by Banerjee, called, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point). Banerjee also participated in the exhibit's closing "Next North Symposium," a four-day discussion on the issues facing the North that featured prominent artists, anthropologists, scientists, and native people.

Image courtesy the Anchorage Museum

Though addressing issues of environmental change, many of the images still focused on the natural beauty endemic to the region. A striking contrast to this, and the works that lingered in my thoughts the longest, were those by Ken Lisbourne, a native artist who, his bio says, "has been sober since 1980 and credits his artwork with support for continued sobriety." One of his paintings on display, the watercolor, "Alcohol," features bright colors and simple figures, but portrays native men passed out from binge drinking while their weeping wives look on.

Image courtesy Anchorage Museum

While the exhibit has now closed, the Anchorage Museum's website has a list of the artists in the show, with links to their web pages. Check out their art and get a different view of the North, one where, just as in the Lower 48, Western lifestyles have caused significant changes to the land and the people who depend on it.

To the casual tourist, Alaska may be an escape from civilization. But as these works demonstrate, upon a closer examination, the North is a region where the effects of civilization are taking their steepest tolls.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Note: Another stunning image I saw at the exhibit but was unable to get the rights to reproduce on the blog was photographer Chris Jordan's Denali-Denial. From a distance, it's a lovely image of snow-covered Denali, the highest peak in North America. Up close, it's a collection of black-and-white logos -- those of the GMC Denali, a luxury SUV. From the artist's "running the numbers" series, the image displays are 24,000 logos, equal to six weeks of sales of that model SUV in 2004. Some of the logos say Denali, and others, with the "i" and "l" transposed, say Denial. Go to his website to check it out.

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