Into the North

At Joseph Gross, Clare Benson captures the austere beauties of the Arctic Circle

An Irishman, name of Coleman, fell in love with a woman from Finland.

Giving up green green Ireland, Michael moved to the Scandinavian north. He had a happy life there, great marriage, great career, great kids, but he struggled. It wasn't so much the darkness and the cold that bothered him, he would say, but the loss of color. For most of the year, he lived in a world that was white, black and gray.

I thought of Michael, a friend, when I visited Clare Benson's Arctic installation, Until There Is No Sun, at Joseph Gross Gallery. Using her own large-scale photos, old scientific prints, a time-lapse video and even rocks on the floor, Benson has recreated the monochrome North.

Benson, a UA master's art grad and now a visiting prof at ASU, had a Fulbright that allowed her to immerse herself in the frozen tip of northern Sweden, above the Arctic Circle.

Black ice, brilliant white snow and beige lichen dominate her beautiful photos, all archival pigment prints. Only one, "Man on the Moon," pictures a human being. It could almost be Michael in the picture, trudging all alone through the colorless wilderness at the top of the globe.

The sky above him is a white blank. The hard earth is whitish, too, with traces of snow. Wan grasses grow among the black rocks. The walker is outfitted in extreme-weather gear, in a thick camouflage jacket and pants. But, defiantly perhaps, he's added a splash of color: a bright red cap.

Benson made the scene a diptych, dividing it into two long panels that emphasize the great expanse of the icy landscape. And she's shot it from an angle that makes the Earth looks curved, letting us know that this guy is almost as far north as it's possible to be.

But this frigid region is not quite empty. If you look closely, you can see that the solitary man is heading for a flagpole. It turns out that Benson is connected to an observatory that scans the skies in this harsh place, and the flag is prudently flown to keep the scientists from getting lost. Even so, the weather sometimes interferes.

In "April 26: We Couldn't Reach the Observatory," another diptych, a thick pile-up of snow is blocking her group's return to the station—a white dome that rises up in the distance. The threatening snow barrier looks like a frozen ocean wave, with sharp and pointed peaks. As Benson notes in a poetic artist's statement, the region's "back-and-forth of freezing and unfreezing creates a landscape like no other."

The spiky blockade looks threatening, and the photo's title sounds ominous, yet Benson made the best of the perilous moment. She shot a double photo that details the dark shadows in the snow's crevices and the unexpected depths of the black ice. Amazingly, you can see through the top layer of ice and catch glimpses of rocky formations below.

In fact, the eye, and seeing—and the telescopes that help humans see more­—theme through Benson's installation. (She has an affiliation with the ophthalmology department at University College London.) She's rooted out 19th century black-and-white lithographs about sight and early astronomy, and given them places of honor on pedestals.

"Buried; Unearthed" brings together two detailed medical drawings, one of the human eyeball and one of the capsule of Tenon, the protective space in the head where the eye is sheltered. In "The Action of the Sun on the Earth and Moon," a telescope is aimed at celestial bodies.

"Moon Maps," featuring six small litho drawings of craters on the moon, celebrates early astronomers, including Kepler and Copernicus.

These historic lithos add the dimension of time to the exhibition, as well as the long sweep of scientific inquiry—one of the photos, "First Satellite," brings us up to the scientific present, with a bird's-eye view inside the observatory, looking down on a wonky octagonal flying machine. And Benson makes a connection between outer space and the Earth, between the moon's pocked surface and our world's desolate polar lands.

Benson's ambition here, she writes, is to explore "light and and ancient myths...that which we know and that which we continue to seek."

Still, her own photos are most riveting elements of Until There Is No Sun. She's hung them by wires from the ceiling, and lashed a few to rocks on the floor. The pictures dangle in the air, a little precariously, the air of danger mimicking the perils of the North.

Her reindeer photos are a delight. In "Herdbeast," a shaft of sunlight streams down diagonally into a forest, lighting up the tall pines and the face of a reindeer at the head of a pack.

The up-close "Migration" teems with even more reindeer, all headed in one direction, determinedly making their way through the woods. The reindeer come in coats of many colors, and Benson's camera lovingly records these welcome hues, from a warm brown to white to a lovely pale gray.

The forests themselves are an unexpected pleasure in this frozen land, and I imagine that the exiled Irishman Coleman reveled in similar trees and lushly furred creatures in adjoining Finland. And there were always the Northern Lights to assuage his longing for the crayon-box colors of his homeland.

Working in Sweden, Benson made a time-lapse video, "Seeable Night Skies," from still shots of the heavens. Projected onto a wall of a gallery, the video goes from plain dark skies to shooting stars to the glories of Aurora Borealis. These Northern Lights erupt and fizzle, in firecracker bursts of gold and pink and blue, and then sizzle again, in red and purple and green.

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