The Phenomenology of a Glacier

The Phenomenology of a Glacier

The first time I caught a glimpse of a glacier, I was taken aback by the intensity of my reaction. I was driving along the first stretch of Iceland's Golden Circle, heading towards Þingvellir National Park. I pulled over into a layby to catch my breath and calm down from the adrenaline rush of adjusting to driving on the right side of the road (in a left-handed car, no less!). The layby provided enough space for several cars to stop, rest, and enjoy the view from a picnic bench. Before us stretched a plain of rocky, moss-covered earth, turning brown and speckled with pale green due to the lack of rainfall as winter approached. In the distance, an enormous lake shimmered like glass, surrounded by indigo mountains dusted with snow. To an untrained eye like mine, the mountains appeared as a magnificent blend of rock and snow, adorned with clouds. However, at a particular point in my line of sight, the distinction between cloud and snow became indistinguishable. Two shades of white merged seamlessly, as if the cloud was sinking into the mountain and the moss-covered Earth below. While a solitary car silently traversed the thread of road through the valley, I became captivated by this segment of the horizon, and I realised that it wasn’t in fact snow or rock or cloud—it was a glacier.

 

The best way to describe a glacier is as a colossal, slumbering beast that occasionally awakens, unleashing an agonizing, resounding roar as ice breaks and rumbles, only to return to its slumber again, steadily carving its way through the rock. Before I saw one first had, I had never taken the time to fully consider what they truly are. A glacier is a dense mass of ice, formed over centuries as snow compacts and solidifies. Some of Iceland's glaciers are thousands of years old, such as Vatnajökull, which formed 2,500 years ago. This glacier was being born at a time in our human history that feels ancient and mythic, a time of Gautama Buddha and Hippocrates, at the start of the Roman Republic and Persian Conquering of Ancient Egypt. Snow fell upon dormant volcanoes, accumulating and hardening under its own weight until it transformed into ice that became so dense it absorbed all colours in the spectrum except that tantalising, glacial blue.

At its thickest point, Vatnajökull measures 1,000 meters deep, and it’s absolutely spectacular. After my first glimpse of a glacier several days before, my affinity with Vatnajökull came from my opportunity to hike one of its several glacial fronds, before paying my respects the end of its life cycle at Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. At the lagoon the ancient glacial ice breaks off in massive bergs the size of buildings, resting in the lagoon until the current carries them into the North Atlantic. These icebergs are tossed about in violent waves before being pushed and crashed onto pitch-black sand. They meet their final resting place after 2,500 years of formation, slumber, collapse, and movement down volcano and mountain. The waves sculpt and polish the icebergs, transforming them into shimmering, transparent statues of diamond-like ice.

 

There is something anthropomorphic about the presence of a glacier. Observing them, hiking over them, venturing into their captivating blue caves, I understood why the Icelandic people speak of Hidden People, Trolls, and Elves descending from the highlands. I also grasped the true meaning of the sublime—the awe-inspiring experience of terror evoked by the extremes of the natural world, such as the sheer height of a cliff, the immense force of a waterfall, or the boundlessness of the night sky. According to Edmund Burke, the sublime is characterised by elements in nature that possess the power to annihilate us. A glacier is riddled with crags and crevasses, and falling into one offers slim chances of survival. Yet, as I stood upon black sands, witnessing glacial ice being sculpted into ephemeral diamonds, the sublime became more complex. Regardless of the might of the glacier, it too is fragile; it too lives and dies.

Since returning to my studio in Perth, which is vastly different from the peace and clarity I felt near the opposite pole, I have longed for these memories and experiences with ice. I am exploring these themes in my artworks, utilising the extreme contrasts of scale (primarily through miniature painting) to convey the vastness of the landscape and invite the viewer into the phenomenology of my encounter, where a glacier is not merely a geological formation but a troll-like, slumbering beast.

Melissa

 

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