Nadim Samman

Alexander Ponomarev
A Biennale Upside Down
Nadim Samman

In case you haven’t noticed, the democratic imaginary is on fire. The flames that licked its heels after 9/11, and which crawled up its legs during the War On Terror, are now threatening to engulf our self-image. Around the globe, religious and secular fascisms smolder; economic shocks stimulate protectionist reflexes and rising inequality; migrant crises trigger racist flashpoints; and there is a clamor for higher walls, more extensive surveillance, bigger weapons and – increasingly – deluded lust for modes of splendid isolation. It is not just that we lack a unifying vision for global community. We do not even know where to start looking for one – the landscape ahead seemingly bereft of paths to tread in the pursuit of anything resembling a common identity. This is a period of disillusionment and combustion. But the sparks that precipitate it do not just issue from ‘politics’, as narrowly defined. The world is, quite literally, heating up – as climate change brings about melting ice sheets, raised sea levels, and delivers untold species of plants and animals unto the extinction pyre. The lack of a collective effort to change our tack, or common recognition of what is happening, only further kindles nihilist burnout in public discourse.

As we have just observed, the apparent absence of a (novel and emancipatory) vision for the 21st Century secular universal has destabilizing effects. Moreover, the idea that it is hopelessly naïve to look for one has taken root. Following the USSR’s collapse the figure of the New Soviet Man was consigned to the scrapheap. Almost immediately, the American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama proposed liberal democracy as the ‘final model’ for the ‘coherent and directional’ development of civil organization; the history (of competing formats) had ended, he asserted, and the liberal democratic subject was the ‘Last Man’ standing.1 Today this is a discredited idea. But the failure of both the Soviet universal and the ideological narrative of pax Americana have hardened our outlook. In our current mindset we reject, offhand, utopian ideas and – as our fractious politics seems to indicate – increasingly, consensus too.

Under these conditions, balkanization and the suburban gated-community reflex assume prominence as the putative ‘best’ option. From military Green Zones to ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses, escape is the day’s refrain. Within Gulfstream Jet cabins super-elites imagine a planetary exodus: A Silicon Valley entrepreneur plans a Martian colony – for VIPs, obviously – as a hedge against the earth’s despoil. As a pioneer in the newly privatized space industry he is feted for his vision. But as with the castaway narratives of old, leavers must decide what (values) to take with them, and which to jettison. Too much of what passes for a ‘way out’ of the 21st century conflagration is merely the re-inscription of existing, problematic, structures onto new sites. Just as a higher wall doesn’t abolish the enemy, dreams of evacuation to other planets do not amount to global political, economic or ecological reform.

The hot heads are on the march, but cooler ones must prevail. Against the obvious political temperature, let us observe that a post-war model for ‘universal’ community already exists as an international project – and that its potential for emancipatory identification is underexamined. Let us also consider how to redirect the impulse to escape. Let us explore what we already have, but barely perceive. The 1st Antarctic Biennale is a ventured in these regards.

According to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the southern continent is reserved exclusively for peaceful scientific research in the interests of all of humanity (with sovereign claims suspended). Owned by no individual or nation, but home in the summer months to approximately four thousand researchers, this legal and institutional framework (and its implementation) is the most successful example of international cooperation in modern history. This fact is even more impressive when one observes that the Antarctic Treaty was born at the height of the Cold War, when geopolitical tensions were most fraught.2 2016 represents a milestone for the treaty. At fifty-seven years since its signing, this year it has held sway over Antarctic enterprise for a longer duration than there have been permanent bases without its regulation.3

The paramount status that the Antarctic Treaty accords to scientific enquiry, incorporating its proscription against the exploitation of natural resources, is justly celebrated as a model for international conservation initiatives. However, in a deeper sense – requiring further investigation – the treaty can be viewed as much more than this: It stands, we believe, as a foundational document for a new form of universal community. Indeed, the Antarctic Treaty system suggests an incipient supranational identity based on cooperation and a sophisticated regard for ecology – whose relevance transcends whatever activities take place on the continent. The establishment of the Antarctic Biennale is ventured as a celebration of this underexplored implication, proposing intensified exploration of Antarctica’s status as a potent cultural paradigm. The biennale proceeds according to the idea that Antarctica furnishes a cultural-political identity that is most prescient in our troubled times – and not just to the scientists and support staff who reside on the continent. Specifically, we assert that the figure of Antarctic Man is the historical subject who succeeds the failed experiments that were the New Soviet Man, and the neo-liberal Last Man of the 1990s. It is this subject that transcends (in legal principle) the defunct paradigms of the nation state, which brackets incommensurable ethnic and religious identities, which incorporates a holistic view of the planet as a complex – unified – system (in practice), and whose concrete activities in Antarctica may yet birth a whole new set of customs, architectures and attitudes whose resonance may yet be felt as far away as the Sahara.

Proceeding according to this outlook, we maintain that Antarctica is underexploited. Not in a physical sense, but as field of visual and conceptual enquiry. The Antarctic Imaginary belongs to everyone, and yet control over the regime of images associated with it is centralized. For the most part, mimetic production is supplied by documentary photographers and filmmakers ‘embedded’ within scientific brigades, or else adhering to hegemonic interpretive frames. Thusly, what passes for Antarctic ‘cultural’ activity assumes a subordinate role to the ‘useful’ research being carried out on bases, or the keynote messages issuing from them – via official media relations. Within this structural condition there is little place for non-debentured, heterogeneous, representations of the Antarctic Imaginary – no bottom up. As such, the contours of the new Antarctic Man lack clarity, and are only being discovered in a haphazard manner. If we are to realize Antarctica’s potential as a model for overcoming the malaise associated with contemporary international relations then artists must seize the means of south polar (image) production. It is only through intensified (and truly independent) artistic engagement with Antarctica that we may discover – through aesthetic experimentation – its otherwise inaccessible intellectual, social and political topography. It is this landscape, we contend, that offers the most promising ground for harvesting radical theoretical and practical visions for life in the 21st Century.

Artists are uniquely equipped to survey the terrain and to communicate its scope. In addition to the inspiration supplied by Antarctica’s supranational administration, their increased engagement with the continent’s environment and science will facilitate an even broader perspective on unity. Indeed, we will not see ourselves as one until we can view the biosphere, which encompasses our civilization as much as it does icebergs, as an integrated unit. Statistical proof of climate change and picturesque photographs of mountain peaks can only be so effective in shifting the public’s self-image. The world requires a new regime of interdisciplinary image making, leveraging the strategies pioneered by artists alongside emerging technologies and empirical studies. The most relevant art of the 21st century must address relations between humans and our multifaceted environment, and develop new representations of living together. It must cultivate deep engagement with cutting edge science, both to widen the scope of what is considered ‘cultural’ and to subject our technological revolution to appropriate scrutiny. The Antarctic Biennale views such interdisciplinary as one of its paramount objectives.

As the above indicates, the Antarctic Biennale is, both literally and metaphorically, a vehicle for facilitating independent cultural production in the South Polar Region. It is a mechanism for expanding the Antarctic Imaginary through aesthetic exploration and interdisciplinary encounters that pursue ‘culture’ in an expanded field that is not only limited to art. It is a supranational initiative committed to the possibility of a universal community that encompasses not just people but the environment too. The theme for the first edition borrows Captain Nemo’s motto from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: ‘Mobilis in Mobile’, meaning ‘moving amidst mobility’. Traversing the Southern Ocean, passing through the Bransfield Straight, between craggy peaks and glaciers, down through the Lemaire Channel, and into the Arctic Circle, it is an expedition as festival. But the movements to which the title refers also encompass a trajectory through shifting currents in climate science, changes in ice-sheet cover, the continent’s geophysical dynamism, and biological upheaval. Lastly, the title embraces a movement – or vector – cutting across developments within various disciplinary spheres. On board the biennale’s expedition vessel there will be a mixture of artists, scientists and philosophers who will be engaged, daily, in dialogue and creative collaboration. The 1st Antarctic Biennale is a new paradigm for global celebration.

With a limited on-site audience – indeed, with only participants present – the biennale departs from standard models of exhibition making and viewing. It is a leap beyond the luxury ghetto of what passes for the contemporary artworld. Doesn’t the very term ring sweaty when mentioned in the same breath as the Ross Ice Shelf? Something other than miles separates this paradigm from the polar one. We who walk the baking flagstones of San Marco, who press flesh at the prosecco intermezzo – where chatter flits from the surface of the artwork to the decoration of the palazzo and the cut of dresses – are very far removed from encounters with the non man-made environment. In fact, the Venice Biennale – the world’s oldest and most prestigious of art festival – takes place amid entirely constructed terrain, where there are more stone carvings of flowers than real ones. Against the pageant supplied by this model biennale, Antarctica is a place that does not forgive hubris easily; a place where people sometimes eat their boots to avoid starving. How was your canapé? “This is a biennale ‘upside down’”, states Commissioner Alexander Ponomarev, “instead of the usual national pavilions – the icy inaccessibility of the Antarctic continent. Instead of pompous apartments and hotel rooms – ascetic cabins. Instead of chaotic creative wanderings, through receptions and tourist filled streets – a dialogue with Big Nature, and an explosion of consciousness facilitated through the dialogues with scientists, futurists, and technological visionaries.” The Antarctic Biennale instantiates the principle of succession from the hothouse of subterranean commercial dealing, spectacle, and social climbing that envelops the art of our times.

Project History & International Interface

The concept for the Antarctic Biennale was first announced during the 54th Venice Biennale of Art at Ca’ Foscari University, one of the homes of Italy’s polar research program, where selected cultural leaders, along with journalists, gathered to hear a series of talks by speakers form the worlds of art and science. Those presenting included the Commissioner of the Antarctic Biennale, artist Alexander Ponomarev, the Director of the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum, Olga Sviblova, and curator Nadim Samman. Representatives from the world of Antarctic science included Dr. Alexey Sokov, Deputy Director of the Russian Institute of Oceanography (the national organization responsible for polar initiatives, whose fleet includes the ice-class vessels Akademik Ioffe and Akademic Sergey Vavilov) and Dr Carlo Barbante, Professor at the university’s Department for Environmental Science, Information and Statistics. Two years later, the official launch of the Antarctic Biennale Organization took place at New York’s storied Explorers Club, on April 18, 2016. Speakers included architect Hani Rashid, the noted American philanthropist John Blaffer Royall, and artist Matthew Ritchie, along with members of the biennale organizing committee. Diplomats from the United Nations were present in the audience. Shortly thereafter, on June 21, the European launch of the organization took place at Barcelona’s Museu Maratim.

Since its inception, the biennale organization has been active internationally. Central to the festival’s development strategy is its multi-dimensional interface with the audiences and structures of the global artworld. In advance of the biennale’s inaugural edition in the South Polar Region, Commissioner Alexander Ponomarev established a permanent ‘base’ for programming in Venice, Italy. The exhibitions that have since occurred at The Antarctic Pavilion set the intellectual and aesthetic tone for the expeditions to come. In addition, the establishment of the Antarctic Biennale Vision Building Club constitutes an interface with academics from various fields, with a series of symposia planned worldwide.

The Antarctic Pavilion opened at the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture with the group exhibition Antarctopia. Curated by Nadim Samman, it showcased projects by 15 of the world’s leading architects, including Zaha Hadid, Juergen Mayer H., Sergey Skuratov and Yuriy Grigoryan. The exhibition also included Hugh Broughton, creator of the award winning British Antarctic Research Base, Halley VI, as well as Spain’s Juan Carlos 1 Research Base. The aim of the project was to explore present and future models of living with Antarctica, and to alert the architectural profession to its current lack of engagement with the Antarctic built environment. Beyond the sphere of architecture, the pavilion’s very establishment offered a polemical and timely encounter with the Venice Biennale’s nationally over-determined structure (where pavilions normally represent nation states). The initiative’s quasi-institutional claim to represent a transnational territory broke with more than a century of tradition at the world’s most important and long-running art festival. The success of the project as an exhibition, and as an intervention, drew significant media attention – with the Guardian naming it among the Top 10 Pavilions, Wallpaper* the Top 25, and further critical acclaim offered by the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph and specialist architecture press. An extensive publication accompanied the exhibition, and – alongside other contributions – included an essay by Dr Shane McChorristine, of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute. Recognizing the project’s groundbreaking nature, Foreign Policy named Alexander Ponomarev and Nadim Samman among the ‘100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2014’ in a special issue of the magazine. Subsequently, the exhibition travelled to the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum.

In 2015, at the Venice Biennale of Art, the Antarctic Pavilion presented Concordia, a solo exhibition by Alexander Ponomarev (curated by Nadim Samman). Concordia is Latin for ‘harmony’ – the personification of concord: a treaty or pact. It is also the name basis of the Costa Concordia, wrecked off the coast of Italy in 2012 after a catastrophic blunder by its captain, who abandoned ship before the safe evacuation of his 3,229 passengers. The installation deployed this disaster – specifically, the broken pact between Captain Schettino and his passengers – as a provocative lens through which to view the fragility of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. This agreement suspended military activity and sovereign claims on the continent’s territory, limiting human activity there to the pursuit of peaceful scientific endeavor. As the global struggle for resources intensifies, the future of this treaty is in peril. In Ponomarev’s sculptural intervention a scale model of the grounded Concordia, tilting like a tipped iceberg (or perhaps a shift in the polar axis itself) was offered as an image of terrestrial re-orientation: a new worldview. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Ponomarev used fire to invoke a notorious act of arson by a staff doctor from the Argentinean Almirante Brown station, who burnt his base to the ground when the setting sun announced the onset of winter. Further works were based on the artist’s expedition to the (Russian Orthodox) Trinity Church of Antarctica, where the expedition party received marriage sacraments from the southern continent’s only resident monk. In addition to its invoking of paradigmatic disasters, Concordia was a meditation on community, responsibility, security and the strength of the ties that bind us together amid shifting personal and political landscapes. A ‘highlight’ of the biennale, according to ID Magazine, the project received plaudits from influential media sources including the Independent newspaper, The Art Newspaper, ArtReview, and Apollo, amongst others.

This year, at the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the pavilion presented Antarctica: Re-Cyclical: a series of projects by Studio Hani Rashid’s Deep Future Lab at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna. The founder of Asymptote Architecture, whose recent projects include the Moscow branch of the world famous Hermitage Museum, Rashid oversaw a series of visionary projections for Antarctica’s development under conditions of global warming. The notion that large parts of Antarctica will become inhabited and will produce crops one day begs the question of how architects might consider such a future, taking into account two important factors. The first aspect being the fate of the continent as the earth’s population increases exponentially, which will invariably compel us to turn to this region for dwelling, tourism, mining, fishing, bioprospecting, and energy production. The second aspect being that with climate change and the melting of polar ice caps, a domino effect of catastrophic proportions the world over will unimaginably alter coastline cities through rising sea levels. The project’s creative direction thus centered on the following topic: Can entirely new forms of thinking, and city planning, which allow for vast populations and viable architectural solutions, evolve from questions that need to be asked regarding sustainable, renewable, and zero-impact solutions under these conditions?

Alongside Antarctica: Re-Cyclical, the pavilion presented a seminar with a unique cast of visionaries. These included Edward Jung, a holder of more than 900 patents, the Founder & Chief Technology Officer of Intellectual Ventures and former Chief Software Architect at Microsoft. He was joined by Dr. Barbara Imhof, Co-Founder of the LIQUIFER Systems Group (LSG), whose projects focus on feasibility and scenario studies as well as mock-ups and prototypes for clients including the European Space Agency. In addition to her work for space industries, Imhof is leading an Antarctic greenhouse project for Germany’s polar research program. Alongside Hani Rashid and Alexander Ponomarev, the final speaker was David Benjamin, Assistant Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Complementing the European interface supplied by Antarctic Pavilion, the biennale organization is engaging an interdisciplinary academic audience through a series of international symposia for scientists, ecologists and geostrategists. Its goals are to investigate how emerging technologies will facilitate future inhabitation of Antarctica and the deep ocean; to consider Antarctica as an institutional space that enables the re-conception of international community; and how the continent’s short colonial history offers opportunities for redefining our relationship to the natural environment. The first event of the Antarctic Biennale Vision Building Club, led by Strategist Dr Pavel Luksha of The Moscow Skolkovo School of Management, took place in Moscow, 2016. Future events are planned throughout the next 12 months.

Expedition Outcomes

The voyage itself will begin after an on-land event in Ushuaia, before passing through the some of the roughest seas on earth to arrive at the rugged South Shetland Islands. Here, the biennale will visit Deception Island and other nearby locations such as Half Moon Island, Hannah Point and Yankee Harbor. In due course, the biennale pushes deeper into the Antarctic archipelago, putting down anchor at (in sequence) at Neko, Paradise and Orne Harbours; Cuverville Island, the Errera Channel, the Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island, Petermann Island and the iceberg-filled Penola Strait. At each of these locations, artists will temporarily install works, or engage in performances. Mobility, site-specificity, ecological compatibility, expressiveness and conceptual acuity will condition their works and nothing will be left behind. Returning to South America, there will be a key intervention at the legendary maritime landmark of Cape Horn, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet.

While the 1st edition of the Antarctic Biennale takes place at the locations specified, its various interventions will be facilitated by its moveable platform – the research ship Akademik Ioffe. Part of the Russian Institute of Oceanography’s scientific research fleet, the vessel will serve not just as a transport vehicle but also as a floating studio, exhibition, performance space and conference facility. Onboard content will include a daily screening program featuring commissioned videos by international artists, a photo lab, a changing exhibition of images created by participants, as well as a series of lectures and discussions convened by Pavel Luksha and Nadim Samman – incorporating the Vision Building Club, along with alternative histories of south polar enterprise. This onboard program will generate materials that will inform – or feature in – a series of exhibitions to be held at international museums following the expedition, complementing documentation and materials associated with the site-specific works created on land/ice. The first of these exhibitions will take place at the Antarctic Pavilion during the 2017 Venice Biennale of Art. A series of book publications will also result. This onboard programming function aims to make the most of the unique conditions of biennale participation, in which all present are active contributors.


The Antarctic Biennale is a paradigm-shifting phenomenon in the global history of art. Its inaugural edition, as well as the events leading up to and following it, aim to rewrite the function of exploration in the 21st Century. Passionate about the potential that the Antarctic Imaginary holds, for exiting polarized identity politics, and ecological insensitivity in public culture, we propose a voyage to the end of the earth. It is our belief that this remote region must be made more proximate; that the last continent is a fertile site for new beginnings.

1Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, Penguin, London, 1992, p.xii.
2Moreover, it was initiated by a group of scientists, rather than politicians
3the first base was established in 1903, fifty-six years before the treaty’s signing