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The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
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Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice

Polar Fantasies and Aesthetics in the Work of Isaac Julien and Connie Samaras

Lisa Bloom

Global warming has brought renewed attention to both the Arctic and Antarctic, as scientists and the media report almost daily on shrinking ice masses. Recently, there has been a shift from a representation of the polar regions as physically terrifying and sublime, to the ground zero of catastrophic climate change worldwide. They have also become sites for the new international rush for territory and scarce natural resources, especially in the Arctic. The Arctic and Antarctic are no longer seen as forbidden places, and the spectacle of the effects of global warming is drawing people to these spaces more than ever before. Tourists carrying digital cameras on cruise boats have descended on these regions, photographing Antarctica during the summer months.

With the exception of the last international geophysical year in 1957-58, the last time these regions have received this kind of popular attention was during the heyday of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The race to the Poles during that era was seen as an important vehicle for nation building and the advance of scientific knowledge. In what follows, I reconsider my book Gender on Ice (1993) in relation to the work of Isaac Julien's True North (2004) and Connie Samaras' V.A.L.I.S. (2005) to examine how 20th century discourses are reworked one hundred years later in the context of 21st century artistic practices. As I wrote in Gender on Ice, polar exploration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was integral to the social construction of a distinctive nexus of white manhood and nationalism and was crucial to reifying a particular form of white masculinity.[1] In the early 20th century. both the North and South Poles represented one of the few remaining masculine testing grounds where "adventure and hardship could still be faced."[2] The role of women and people of color, in this vehicle for nation- and culture-building and the advance of scientific knowledge, was significantly elided at this historical moment.

Almost one hundred years later, the Arctic and Antarctic are no longer the site of a privileged white masculinity and these regions are no longer understood as just remote areas, but rather as spaces closely, if complexly, connected to globalized and political forces. By focusing on the work of two artists—Isaac Julien and Connie Samaras—this article asks: What new stories and images are being produced through recent attempts to re-visualize the Arctic and Antarctic? What impact have the genres of science fiction and horror, as well as the older aesthetic traditions of the sublime, had on their work? In what follows I will examine how both Julien and Samaras' work are playing off or in dialogue with issues raised in my book about the Heroic Age of exploration as well as the ways that both these projects take the critical scholarship of the book's gender and race politics in new artistic directions beyond the bounds of my original enquiry.

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© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice