I am an artist and lecturer from Scotland, currently preparing to leave China, after running an International Postgraduate Art and Design Course at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute for a year.
I use the language of painting to explore the mystical reality of Northern landscapes. Given my interest in light and darkness, my research has led me to Iceland during a period of Polar Night, and to Svalbard to witness the Midnight Sun and a period of Twilight from the perspective of a Barquentine tall ship, sailing on the Arctic Ocean. My connection to the Arctic landscape is ongoing and the next stage of my research journey will involve witnessing the annual returning of light in the northernmost research community in the world, Ny Alesund.
Painting is essential in helping me decipher energies and in facilitating heightened states of awareness: symbiotically my conscious and subconscious selves gauge the magnitude of human existence within the universe. This forms the autobiographical baseline for my work.
Contributing to the language of painting via honest and visceral reactions to natural light and landscapes is fundamental to my research. Working amid the sacred Arctic landscape has inspired alchemical experiments involving grinding rocks to mix with non-chemical mediums to create ecologically sound pigments, which have been the elixir to significant paintings. Collaborating with Polar scientists during periods of Arctic research has also become central to my work and crucial to my awareness of geological and biological shifts within landscapes due to climate change.
Most recently I spent three weeks sailing around the Svalbard Archipelago as a member of The Arctic Circle Autumn Residency. In late September 2018, I flew to Longyearbyen (Arctic Svalbard), after living in China for eight months and found the reality of transitioning between the two locations to be otherworldly.
Like many countries around the world, China – and more specifically, Chongqing, a growing city of 18 million people – provides an intense contrast to the Arctic landscape. Having felt the strength of both locations, my responsibility now is to share my first-hand experience of the Polar North with an audience who is geographically 4,000 miles away from the source.
Since returning to China in late October, I have been working in my studio to create ARCTIC CRACKING, a solo exhibition supported by The British Council and hosted by 501 Xu Space, which opened in Chongqing on the 12th of January. (Later in 2019, ARCTIC CRACKING will travel to additional venues in the UK. Check my website for details of the upcoming international tour.) The exhibition comprises a combination of paintings, photographs, films and sketchbooks, which were created both while physically immersed in the Arctic landscape and after returning to my Chinese studio.
ARCTIC CRACKING aims to transcend physical space and communicate the reality of the fragile North, highlighting our need to take responsibility for preserving not only the precious polar regions but the entire planet. Climate change is causing increasing atmospheric and ecological destruction, affecting many locations on both micro and macro levels.
The title of the exhibition refers to my experience of holistically cracking in the Arctic landscape and testing myself to the limit: Touching the edge of hypothermia with frozen, dysfunctional fingers, toes and a numbness which slowed both my physical and mental reactions. In order to completely feel the reality of the Arctic, I spent time walking through the snow and on top of glaciers with bare, exposed skin, and submerging my whole body, alongside icebergs, in the Arctic ocean. The title also refers to the reality of glaciers rapidly calving (cracking, breaking and crumbling, sending tidal waves rolling over the surface of the ocean) due to climate change.
The exhibition contains several scroll paintings made on rice paper, backed with silk. Chinese landscapes and Asian temples are depicted as spiritual havens becoming destroyed by pollution and human behavior. The importance of maintaining sacred structures (thousand-year-old glaciers and temples) as sacred places of worship is implied.
In the paintings, a dead tiger, swallows and migrating geese represent the creatures on land and in the ocean, which are struggling to survive due to climate change. I have consciously used the traditional Chinese painting format, with more contemporary materials, such as spray paint, to represent the changes our natural world is undergoing due to toxic carbon emissions.
In addition, using a metal box and painted flags (displaying “one world” and “one body” in Mandarin characters), I created performance films, which present one human body as a metaphor for the collective “body” of humanity. In the films, my “one body” arrives as a package into the sacred Arctic landscape, steps out of the box and is humbled by the reality. Aware of the responsibility to preserve the natural environments that we are privileged to be a guest in, the “one world” symbols act as metaphors for global unity.
The use of Mandarin characters in my work symbolizes my current connection to China and the color red acts as a metaphor for the pain inflicted on natural landscapes by the expansion of human environments.
A common response to the Arctic landscape is one of awe. A humbling awareness of our human insignificance dawns as we compare our fleeting existence to the ancient, organic, presence of the rest of the universe: Magnificent mountains, inspiring glaciers, gigantic bays, the dazzling Arctic Ocean, and the vast swirling sky above us. Despite our perceived irrelevance as individuals, the “one body” of humanity and its collective behavior is causing significant destruction to our “one world.”
My future research plans involve further investigations into the Polar North at varying times of year, collaborating with scientists while witnessing the changing Arctic reality and communicating about how to effectively convey the truth.
In mid-January, after finishing teaching the semester at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, just prior to the Chinese New Year holiday, I set off to explore some additional Asian landscapes. First, I journeyed to Kathmandu and travelled around Nepal for one week, absorbing the fascinating and complex culture. The deep spiritual peace and intoxicating magic of the mountains was a massive contrast to some of the challenges (connected to poverty and female slavery) I witnessed in the cities.
From Pokhara, I trekked to see incredible views of the Annapurna Himalayas at sunrise and sunset, and was lucky to be greeted with clear skies and snowy peaks kissed with pink light. Then I flew to the South West coast of Thailand, to think, draw and write, while enjoying the warm turquoise sea – a chance to process the vastly different locations and varying manifestations of climate change I have experienced this year.
Tomorrow I travel to the UK, to return to life in Scotland, where I will be within easy reach of the Arctic landscape.
(Top image: ARCTIC CRACKING painting in progress in Chinese studio.)
Georgia Rose Murray is a painter and lecturer from Scotland. Her paintings depict her fascination with the sublime effects of light and darkness on the natural landscape. Her holistic processes are guided by conscious and subconscious observations and by a visceral awareness of the mystical; the works explore our human existence on Earth in connection with the spirit world.