Biennials & festivals

Dispatches from our man at the Antarctic Biennale: around Cape Horn and homeward-bound


Monday 27 March: Woke to the mounting light, sun coming up at seven, a solid orange square on the cabin wall and blue sea beyond the porthole, a very specific and special moment: dawn in an ocean liner cabin, brief Rothko luminescence lighting the room.

My usual morning perambulation up and down the decks, and Jean de Pomereu saying he’d noted the look of satisfaction on my face, pleased to be returning to civilisation at last: “I could see your Mediterranean spirit reviving as we can almost smell Argentina.”

Pinned to the board an interesting pie-chart of all our nationalities according to passports, Carlo an Italian, but the other seven from the UK turn out to be mostly Russian—a complete cheat in my opinion—while Pia Marocco is secretly Austrian. Hah!

Breakfast next to Yto: on the consistently low status of fabric art, how one day in Brooklyn her children spilled fruit on the special proper monogrammed linen of grandmère, so she decided to take everything out of storage and got them to squash more and more fruit over the best linen and stain it so as to use it all the time. We all have to finally settle up our expenses in American dollars cash, having lived for so long on nothing but the Kabbalah power of our room numbers. My total bill for the whole trip is just $56—$50 for the rental of waterproof equipment and $6 for a One Ocean decal patch for my winter coat, my usual tight Welsh budget. And I feel damn good on no alcohol for ten days, Richard Burton reborn.

Great excitement all afternoon as we slowly approach Cape Horn—or indeed ‘Cape of Good Horn’ as some on the boat might call it. To quote Nadim: “We’ve been stewing in each other’s juices.” From 2pm I was on the foredeck transfixed by the approaching islands, unable to look away, ridiculously bright and sunny and beautiful, straightforward blazing Tropicalia. We could see the Cape on left, but very unlike the usual weather here, the opposite of all the horror stories of America’s Cup shipwrecks and Hornblower dramas. The boat turns 360 degrees and we head straight for the Horn, and everything broke off by 3pm to salute it, ‘the rock’ itself, in perfect Mediterranean sunshine. Wonderful celebrations, with Nick Shapiro getting his hair cut, that great nautical tradition, by Lou Sheppard, and then all the Russians start singing, Pon-Pon launching into old shanties with the rest of the crew before revealing a vast chunk of ice which he had been keeping ready and dramatically throwing it into the churning sea before us, returning it to the Antarctic. Nobody could quite believe the smooth sea and ideal weather, almost too hot and too sunny, like Patmos in July. I have weathered the Horn, yes.

The director Denis Delestrac showing his award-winning film on Sand Wars, how all the sand in the world is being stolen by different major criminal organisations, but the weather so beautiful outside that instead I stood with him at the rails hearing about his amazing life. As a young man he traveled through the USA on nothing, took a Greyhound to Dallas, and bluffed his way into a job on a local student publication as a photographer, then the Dallas Morning Star, came back to Paris as a writer for Le Monde, was long based in Montréal and now Barcelona, worked all over the world, currently shooting a major film on photographer Steve McCurry and on top of it all is a close friend of Noam Chomsky, even did a book with him.

The pleasure of just standing on the deck watching the distant different islands slip past and then, like some final great treat thrown in by Neptune or whomever, a whole shoal of dolphins appeared, racing along at the side of the boat, so clear, so fast, so fleet, shooting along like glossy torpedoes right next to us, bright visible in the crystalline water. We all delayed going down for the final ‘Captain’s Dinner’ until that improbable, impossible blazing sun had finally set behind some distant archipelago at 7.30.

All of us dressed up, even my skinny Alexander Olch tie, and I crept in to sit down at the nearest table by the door but then, most embarrassing, Pon-Pon came marching over across the room and pulled me up and took me over to the captain’s table where I was allowed to sit in full honour. What did I do to deserve this, my lord? Best of all I happily fell back on the bevy—several bottles of prime Malbec at our special table and Eugene Kaspersky directly opposite me, shaved, smooth, wearing tie and suit for first time, generously helping me out with all this drink. Many, many speeches and songs, the great Russian tradition, the best one being the laconic captain himself, who essentially said: “I am captain…. you are safe… Welcome.” Much ceremony as each one of us was called by name and went up to receive a special certificate that we had indeed participated in the world’s first ever Antarctic Biennale. Tears and toasts, and more toasts and more drink, yea.

All up to the bar for loud music and the final madness of disco inferno, with much staggering off into the dark night, discreet goodbyes whispered by deck rails, little pools of regret by lamplight, neat vodka in a white ceramic cup; even amused compliments on my “minor public school strut” from some of the younger figures on the dance floor, so I felt obliged to remind them I had been baptised in the hi-energy narco-furnace of New York, summer of 1981, Paradise Garage stamped bold on my ass.

Much wandering around the by now much loved maze of our boat, discovering a cabin where the latest virtual reality systems were being demonstrated, drunken mounting of VR headset, very good Medieval battles, a single ascending shot of a waterfall, and even our own Antarctica, the trial footage which has been shot all the length of our voyage here. I just love VR, total sucker, like any sort of 3D or Imax I find it so addictively enjoyable. Could this whole thing, this extraordinary adventure, just have been one laborious virtual reality fantasy that we all decided to embark on? Went up one very last time to admire the billion stars above us from the very top deck, so dazzling and all in reverse or something. Or is it me that is all in reverse or something? Crashed to bed 1.30, but just could not sleep, too much Malbec, too much joy, too many nautical miles running backward through my mind.