Janet Biggs

Somewhere Beyond Nowhere

2013, Running Time: 5:48 minutes

In 2009 and again in 2010, Janet Biggs participated in the Arctic Circle Residency, a program that takes artists and scientists aboard the 1910 Noorderlicht sailing ship to explore Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, and the high Arctic Ocean. During her residency, she filmed Somewhere Beyond Nowhere, a two-channel, high-definition video installation. In the video a solitary Biggs repeatedly fires a flare-gun into the gray Arctic sky; it is a call for help and a gesture of self-assertion in the face of this vast and threatening space.

Somewhere Beyond Nowhere offers a slow reflection on the power of the frigid Arctic landscape. Biggs narrates the story of two failed attempts by nineteenth century polar explorers to reach the North Pole.

In a patriotic bid to reach the North Pole for the pride of Sweden, Salamon August Andrée and two others attempted to fly a hydrogen balloon from Svalbard to the North Pole. Andrée had relied heavily on drag-rope steering techniques, which proved to be devastating to the voyage. Additionally, the balloon had not been tested and leaked at too rapid a pace. Trusting too strongly in technology over the unforgiving forces of the Arctic, Andrée and his two fellow explorers died shortly after the balloon crashed. Their remains were discovered in 1930 with diaries and film that, when developed, revealed surreal images of the collapsed balloon with two tiny black figures peeking out in the blank, white landscape. As Biggs narrates this history of Andrée’s fate, scenes of the still, barren, glacial island devoid of any presently active life create a painful juxtaposition of the hopeful beginnings of a man’s voyage and the final act. She tells of how Andrée had even packed a tuxedo to wear when he met the dignitaries upon completion of his travels.

The firing of the flare-gun is caught from two angles and in slow motion, placing emphasis on the action. On the left screen, the focus is on the artist and the landscapes; on the right, the focus is only on the artist’s hands. The two panels show the same perspective only when the emergency flare reaches the cold water. All the while, Biggs determinedly fixes her eyes on the pristine Arctic.

Biggs then narrates the attempt of Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to reach the North Pole by harnessing the natural East-West current of the Arctic Ocean. However, after reaching the New Siberian Islands, his ship began to freeze into the ice. The speed of the ship was too slow for Nansen; with his companion Hjalmar Johansen, he decided to leave the ship and continue the journey with a team of sled dogs. While Nansen did not succeed, his ship the Fram continued her trip and reached the North Atlantic Ocean a year and a half later. Images of remnants of past explorers clutter the snow like fragments of memory, placing the familiar in an otherwise unknown and hostile landscape. By indicating the presence and memory of others as told by their artifacts and relics, the artist evokes a palpable loneliness and solitude.

The repeated gesture of shooting an emergency flare can be seen as a cry for help in a distant land far from civilization, perhaps reminding us of those explorers who, just like Biggs, once stood in solitude on the ice. But, as Biggs has suggested, it can also be read as an aggressive assertion of her presence, a message of hope, announcing that she is still there, present as a survivor. Biggs’s gesture is also a call to action, proceeding directly from an increasingly urgent need to draw attention to climate change and the knowledge that her physical presence—every footstep, every mark she made—was part of the destruction of the region (Biggs, 2017). As the artist shoots the last two emergency flares, a small explosion can be heard at the end: it is a warning to the audience.

Of her time in the Arctic, Biggs remarked that she had never felt “so present in life, but also so insignificant” (Biggs, 2013). She found herself in a nowhere where the concept of time and space disappear, where “the world falls away and time repeats” and where the beauty of the extreme environment hides an imposing hostility and solitude from the rest of the world. At the close of the film, Biggs adds some personal memories and entries from her own expedition journal, placing herself in the long line of Arctic explorers who mustered the courage to explore the unknown in hope of discovery.

By Marco Cataldi ( Università degli Studi G. D’Annunzio Chieti-Pescara) and Isabella St. Ivany (Fordham University). 

Janet Biggs (b. 1959, Harrisburg, PA) takes her art to the limit. Venturing out into physically
challenging and geographically remote areas, she examines how humans exist and persist
in harsh, unwelcoming terrains. Through narratives that span the autobiographical,
historical, and scientific, Biggs investigates the duality of existence present in the
conditions of our exterior and interior worlds, and she finds that what is fragile and
impermanent has the ability to grant strength, survival, and an affirmation of identity.
Although her undergraduate degree at Moore College of Art was in painting and
her graduate degree at Rhode Island School of Design was in glassblowing, her current
work is mainly in video with a scientific methodology. Biggs has remarked that through
making these works, she has arrived not at an answer, but rather at the next question,
much like scientific exploration. By voyaging to environments outside the realm of
familiarity, Biggs comes upon new discoveries and understandings of the human
condition.

Janet Biggs
Still from Warning Shot (2016)