issue 03: body of water
an immemorialjonathan kay
and connah podmore
Jonathan Kay, Ice core sample (2019) (surface detail). New Zealand Ice Core Research Facility. Courtesy of the artist.
Water is liquid
Water is solid
Water is time
What is water of another time?
J: Dead Ice
Tucked away at the base of Mt Towai, Wellington, is a cluster of buildings belonging to GNS Science. The most indistinct of these buildings, with its shed-like facade, gives no indication of its true purpose; however, it holds taonga1 of global importance. It is the New Zealand Ice Core Research Facility (NZICRF), and it is the final resting place for ice cores from New Zealand and Antarctica.
Here at the NZICRF, the ice cores’ lengths are labelled. The ice cores are then stored tenderly in polystyrene boxes, which are stacked on shelves in a consistent -35 °C temperature.2 This is a silent place, a still place, a cold place.
Scientists examine the ice cores, reading them like the strata of rock. Layer by layer, they go deeper into time. The extracted ice core is laid bare and examined with post-mortem precision as the scientists intensify their gaze to a molecular level. Within the layers of ice are tiny air pockets and mineral particles that were trapped at the point of accumulation and compressed under the weight of time. These smallest of details paint a picture of an atmosphere that is millions of years old.
Through analysis of these tiny entities, the scientists find insight into the changeability of the atmosphere.3This is essential knowledge when trying to predict the future by modelling how the Earth’s waters might respond to a capitalism-generated climate catastrophe, as ice masses around the world continue to melt in response to the rapid increase in global climate—a consequence of decisions towards excess.
When a glacier does not have enough mass to generate momentum, it is defined by the scientific term “dead ice.”4 The ice cores in the NZICRF are also dead ice. Drilled from their original environment, they now remain static—isolated and archived. I come to this tomb, I feel the weight of what is being done here, and I contemplate my role, my responsibilities, as an artist, as a human.
I listen, I photograph, and I find comfort in the process of looking intently at the ice core’s details. It all comes down to the smallest of matter—water, air, and dust. I have come back to these materials in my work, again and again, contemplating their value. These humblest of materials have the greatest of impacts, and I float between the scientific and poetic.
I ponder this while I look down at the illuminated ice core, light penetrating its structure. It is this sense of luminosity that sends me back to when I was conducting field work on Haupapa/Tasman Glacier and I was standing in the centre of a massive ice cave. I remember looking up at the immense ceiling, carved by water and punctured by shards of light that gave the chamber a cathedral-like aura.
I recall the echo of the guide’s voice as he told us that ice caves were fleeting, and feeling totally overwhelmed by the haunting ephemerality of it all. I now have the same feeling looking down at the ice core, and a shiver runs down my spine. This dead ice could survive in its temperature-controlled vault as long as we do. Will we survive?
C: Heavy Waters
Connah Podmore, Tunnel Beach (2020). Pastel and acrylic on canvas. 1200 x 900 mm. Courtesy of the artist.
Some years ago, my family learnt by chance that my Nana had a younger sister who was left behind in Guangzhou when her family returned to New Zealand.5 The sister did not survive and Nana never spoke of her. I have had many opportunities to reflect on the memory of my Nana—a special person from my childhood and family tree; however, the more elusive story of her sister has a particular weight to it, and I find myself gravitating towards it again and again.
One consequence of this gravitational pull is that I have lately found myself picturing Nana not as the petite, elderly woman of my childhood, but as a child in a photograph found after her death. There, she is perhaps 11, slender and solemn (or bored?). Next to her sits her little sister—the one who will later be left behind. She is smiling at the camera and is very cute. It is a beautiful photograph and speaks to memories almost completely lost. I am curious about these young people and their relationship. I want to know more about their time together, and of Nana’s journey back to New Zealand without her.
I am no historian, so when I turn to the archives for information I do not know how to look. “Where the creation of a sense of the past is not in the hands of professional historians,” American sociologist Michael Schudson, wrote, “it is all the more likely that the past will be used as a resource for legitimating rather than an avenue toward truth.”6 There is both warning and censure in Schudson’s statement; however, as far as my artwork is concerned, I have chosen to take his words as permission to lower the expectations of my search, and as liberation.
Where at the beginning of my search I had hoped to find something authentically Nana’s—particularly, a photograph of the ship she crossed on—I now embrace the title of the irresponsible amateur to the point of ridiculousness. I flip through photographs in archive drawers like I would records at a music shop, and when I find old photographs of ships, I do not consult name, type, or date, but choose photographs where the water looks particularly evocative or the quality of the photograph pleases me. It is not truth but closeness that I crave, and this act of turning back gives the illusion that I am reaching closer.
Lately, I have found that I have become more interested in the images of water that surrounded the ships than the old ships themselves, and have begun making drawings from them. My current fixation is an image titled 387. Ships. Steam. Here, the water appears placid and mottled. It is a simple ocean: calm with minimal disturbance, close to land (as evident by the presence of trees on either side of the frame) and most likely not particularly deep. It is a veil, a sheet, a mirror. It is familiar and welcomes me. It appears still, but I know that it is always in motion.
5 Like many Chinese New Zealanders of her time, Nana and her sister were sent to China for their education. She returned as a consequence of the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. For further reading, see Helene Wong, Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story (New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 2016).
6 Michael Schudson, “The Past in the Present versus the Present in the Past” in The Collective Memory Reader, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 287.