Nadim Samman

Alexander Ponomarev
Reverse Sailing
Alexander Ponomarev

In March 2017 a scientific research ship carrying 30 of the world’s most exciting contemporary artists – accompanied by a host of thinkers and visionaries – will set sail for the world’s most inaccessible continent. En route, and on the ice, the 1st Antarctic Biennale will re-imagine what an art festival can be.

In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed – preserving the continent for the sole use of ‘peaceful scientific enquiry’ – by 12 countries. Today, it binds 41 nations. To date, it is one of the most effective, and respected, treaties born in the last century. It is an inspiring example of international cooperation, the likes of which sets our response to current global challenges into stark relief.

When the Antarctic Treaty was drafted, the achievements of civilization and modern material wellbeing seemed to promise humankind’s survival and flourishing. Religion no longer seemed to be a convincing social and spiritual structure, and major wars were thought to be a thing of the past. . But everything has turned out exactly the opposite way. We now see that the development of civilization leads to environmental degradation – for example, recent studies show that Antarctica's ice is melting rapidly. If carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels continue unabated, we will face an unprecedented rise in the level of the planet’s oceans. And that's not all. The world is suddenly facing religious wars once again. Why? What does it mean? It means that we have lost the tools of coexistence. It is unbelievable. And terrifying.

The 1st Antarctic Biennale is a platform for discussion, a way of highlighting the importance of inspired global cooperation, and an attempt to understand what art can achieve when it moves beyond the standard infrastructure of galleries, museums, and festivals. Antarctica is the last ‘free’ continent where humans have been able to cooperate and coexist without fighting, outside the hard construct of the nation state. It is also a place where, for the most part, geography is not totally subject to our control. It is a no-man's land and, at the same time, neutral territory. These are unique conditions for a cultural project. 

Contemporary art is the tool we use because only art is still capable of seeing the world in its integrity. Imagine our festival as one big art performance, on a continental and global scale, that consists in the dialogue between artists, scientists, and visionaries.

Our movement is like Plato's ‘reverse sailing’. We sail together to a real land, so that later, in our hearts and minds, we can begin a ‘reverse sailing,’ which in fact is the process of internal change of the consciousness of each human being.

Antarctica is very important in terms of our physical survival and because of its extreme environmental conditions; it's an entirely different dimension. Most people living their daily lives, even in a great city like New York, never see such natural phenomena as the collision of spatial masses, and do not fully comprehend the reality of being human: to be a small grain of sand in a massive universe. And to survive, these grains need to unite with others. We are conceptualists, and romantics, and constructivists, and adventurers in the best sense of the word. 

Antarctica seems like another planet, but it is here on Earth. It is a weather vane that can show the future trajectory of our planet – upward toward cooperation and further harmonious growth and development; or downward into chaos, animosity, and ecological disaster.

Artists cannot save humanity, and they don't have to. We will produce interdisciplinary artistic event, and have a drink or two. But I have no illusion that we will stop the ice from melting, or solve all the world's problems. During the 1st Antarctic Biennale, our ship will set sail for the White Continent. Each artist will interpret the environment and space around them, and create an artwork that is ecologically harmless and spontaneous. Who knows for how long these artworks will live. For art, the most important thing is to create meanings and consciousness. This is the purpose of our journey.