The Ice Mitten

 


Performance: Nuuk and Sisimiut, Greenland, May 2003 as part of the ‘Wolf in the Winter’.

‘Ice Mitten’ was performed for small audiences of Inuit people in Nuuk, (Greenland’s capital), and in Sisimiut, a small town inside the Arctic Circle. Jessie Kleemann had summoned a pack of the ‘Wolf in the Winter’ artist’s collective to her native Greenland *. The physical shock of encountering the far North was an unrepeatable experience: the epic beauty of gliding along glaciers in tiny propeller planes and boating up remote, misty fjords to reside in small towns encircled by the hungry ice-blue eyes of the thousands of chained-up, baying sledge-dogs (husky/wolf cross-breeds). The emotional dimension of the trip expanded in proportion to the vast and wildly alien environments that we encountered. Here, I could palpably feel the nature of open space as a white negative to my lifelong grey city-dweller’s attenuated vision. I thought a lot about distance, silence and sound; about my accumulation of deafness and the expanses of a naturally hushed ‘cap’ at the top of the world. More than any place that I’ve encountered before or since, Greenland, with its white immensity and 24 hour daylight, pulsates with extreme contrast in ways that hark to the inescapable drama hewn between life’s joy and the inevitability of death. And so, I wanted to make a piece that dramatised, in an immediate way, the competing claims of loss and gain.

I’d arrived at Greenland’s art centre in Nuuk with the fanciful idea of encasing myself in ice to emulate Frankenstein’s creature at the Polar climax to Shelley’s fable. Having managed to – unexpectedly - locate an electrical freezer, I scaled the idea down to an ice-bound hand and thus, in preparation, fashioned a large and heavy block frozen around a stuffed glove. Upon the signal to start, I removed the glove to create a cavity, inserted my hand into the ice and held it overhead while entering the performance space. I’d made a rough estimate that the weight of the ice would melt the strength in my arm (measured in a London gym), faster than my hand became frozen. The audience, knowing about speed-rates of freezing, stirred in discomfort as I struggled for eight minutes or so to hoist and maintain the ice’s position ‘north’ overhead, as the strength in my arm gradually elapsed and my hand drifted downwards.

Prior to the trip, I’d read Polar survival handbooks advising explorers not to allow the numbness of freezing to creep past the second knuckle of the fingers. However, such was the weight of the ice-block that I couldn’t in fact continue to hold it overhead before that point was reached. Having lost the strength to hoist the melting block aloft, I let it drift to the floor. Removing my numbed hand from the ice I stripped my winter clothes off to adopt a naked foetal position on the floor. This part of the performance also drew on a ‘far North’ survival technique: having taken calcium tablets for a few weeks in order to speed the growth of my fingernails, I curled on the floor to reach round and scratch my flanks and shoulders, drawing blood, thereby simultaneously speeding up my cardiac circulation whilst also re-warming the near-frozen hand.

As the tour proceeded, garnering sensational reports in the national Danish /Inuit newspaper, the ‘Wolves’ collective came full upon its reflection in the form of a community audience on a tiny island reached by an hour’s speedboat ride. Improvising a group performance, as the wind swirled around us in the sink of the island’s natural auditorium with the sea on all sides, the audience lolled around the ridge of the bowl watching us intently, informed by their own traditions of performing life as well as living it. Inuit art is full of this cleavage – in Sisimiut I found a book of photographs of 1920’s cosmic trampoliners, of armies of wolf-masked idiot-dancers and extreme-bondage spirit throwers. After the performance, we were taken to the community hut on the island. A kayak team set off to catch fish to feed thirty people while we all re-warmed around the stove and the Inuit people sang their heart-stopping call-and-response songs. As the sun worryingly set upon thoughts of the boat ride back, tales were told of Norwegian sailors who had vanished into the northern snows to embrace feral existences.

In the meantime, between performances on the tour, we had learnt to cook Polar cuisine that baldly relied on the success of the hunter (vegetables were rare above the tree-line); and at one point extemporised a wake to mourn an accompanying wolf that didn’t make it back to Europe, but who, in one momentous evening, lodged forever in all our hearts.

Around this time, I’d wondered if performance was something I might be good at and able to develop in the long-term (artistically, but more importantly, personally). This was the gig that first made me feel that there wouldn’t be anything else that could compel me to quite this extent.

Aaron Williamson, London 2003

 

* The other artists were: Jessie Kleemann, Brian Catling, Anet van de Elzen, Jason Lim, Denys Blacker, Kirsten Norrie and Ralf Wendt.

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