Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 12, 2019
Christopher P. Heuer Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2019. 256 pp.; 69 b/w ills. Cloth $32.95 (9781942130147)

When the artist Olafur Eliasson, with the help of geologist Minik Rosing, hauled eighty tons of Greenland ice to Place du Panthéon for Ice Watch Paris (2015), releasing thirty tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so that Parisians and anyone who had traveled to the city (some for the United Nations Climate Change Conference), burning their own quantum of fossil fuel along the way, could feel they were watching the melting of our polar ice caps, he channeled the Arctic’s cold waters into a river of his spectators’ warm tears. One thing Christopher Heuer does in his timely Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image is mop up that mess with a rag called history. Icebergs were not always so endearing. When European explorers encountered them in the sixteenth century, they found them for the most part moronic—either mute or senselessly roaring. This was a time of hopelessly doomed voyages, undertaken by men who were never in danger of becoming heroes but who nonetheless wrote, filing “true reports” as the blood slowly froze in their veins; and the words they wrote were promptly translated into images back home, where wars of religion were being fought, in part, over the question of images.

Like a giant sheet of paper, the Arctic landscape had been a site of inscription long before these men arrived, though this was difficult for them to see. The people living there were also the bearers of messages that went unread by these visitors; the apotropaic facial tattoos of Eastern Inuit mothers were among the types of markings the explorers failed to even try to decipher. While the Far North may have been relatively “icy, unpopulated, commodity poor, and visually and temporally ‘abstract’” (10), the nothingness these men encountered there was largely the spectacle of their own deafness and blindness.

The Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus was something of an exception to this general rule of incomprehension; not that he got everything right about the Arctic, but at least he understood how much was there to be read. In 1555, Olaus published an enormous, encyclopedic account of the Far North, which he characterized as “a vast archive, an active sender of messages” (133)—runic inscriptions, snowflakes embroidered by Nature, the languages of bees and mice, the satanic verses of Lapland magicians. Even the North’s numbing cold was for Olaus less a climatological condition than a form of meaning.

Heuer modestly presents his chapter on the bishop as something of an aside, but it is of a piece with his mesmerizing, central chapter, “Arctic Ink,” where icy, largely unheard messages continue to emerge, now in the form of congealed words, frozen dictionaries, and ice that “makes a sound like a human voice” (168). Here Heuer’s attention moves from the Arctic’s brittle messages to the supports onto which its explorers scratched their own words and images; Into the White is, among other things, a story of paper, its “capacity for endurance, to ‘carry’ specific kinds of traces over time as well as space” (154). “In June of 1871,” the chapter begins, “Norwegian hunters unearthed a mysterious chunk of pulp in the Russian Far North. . . . The mass, caked with gravel, ice, and moss, turned out to be part of something astonishing: a cache of Netherlandish engravings—more than four hundred of them—works after Hendrick Goltzius, Karel van Mander, Bartholomeus Spranger, and others” (135). These engravings were left behind by Wilhelm Barents’s disastrous expedition in search of a northeast passage to Asia in 1596–97, which marooned his crew in the northern Siberian archipelago of Nova Zembla for almost a year. The chunk of pulp was a conservator’s nightmare: hundreds of second-rate Netherlandish engravings, which “had become wet, then dried, then frozen, over and over again. . . . The prints had become glued to one another, the paper fibers intermeshed” (151).

In 1977, a team of conservators at the Rijksprentenkabinet began painstakingly separating, washing, and mounting these severely damaged sheets onto Japanese paper, winning a Pyrrhic victory for science, history, and the vast taxonomic project that undergirds the discipline of art history. “The conservators’ job,” Heuer writes, evocatively, “was to bring [the engravings] back, warding off their history of slow fusion with the ground, their settling into the time of the earth, durational time, their absorption into a geological cycle of seasons” (152). Once separated, the prints were cataloged like any others, with Hollstein numbers and states, as if they had never been swallowed alive. Despite this stunning feat of conservation, Heuer rightfully insists, the engravings remain intermixed at the level of their fibers with the land into which they settled.

So too are the bodies of many men: “To perish in such terrain was not always to vanish, but to accrete, to become one with” the ground (164). Into the White returns to a less endearing moment in the history of not only the iceberg but also the concept of the environment, one less confident in the distinction between matter and men. Returning to this moment might help us see—this is the wager of Heuer’s important project—that a humanist view of the current climate crisis will remain blind to how vertiginous “our” position in it really is. To make this point Heuer turns in his final chapter to the USSR, which, he says, “monumentalized the Far North as a kind of technologized grayness, a colossal architecture of science, energy, and terror” that, unexpectedly, “looks back to the earliest Northern voyages” (180). In this same chapter, the not-art of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI)—a collective founded in Los Angeles in 1994 and devoted to documenting, archiving, and databasing the indeterminate relation between land and its uses—emerges as an antidote to Eliasson’s brand of artistic activism, which is invested more in staging spectacles than in seeing what is already there. The CLUI shows us how information technology might facilitate less anthropocentric transcriptions of an environment that we only make warmer, Heuer suggests, with our tears.

This book brings to light—and brings to bear on contemporary environmental art—an early modern archive that has never before been studied as a meaningful whole. That is already a major contribution. It also reflects bracingly on the discipline of art history and humanist scholarship in general, which, Heuer asks us not to forget, is “as complicit in polar melting as any other capital-based forces today” (190). It is not just Eliasson; everything we do leaves a carbon footprint. To understand early modern Arctic exploration, we need to revise familiar ways of thinking: “early modern aesthetic responses to, and constructions of, the Arctic upend and complicate some categories that are blithely applied to histories of Renaissance exoticism in art and science: categories such as wonder, identity, and curiosity” (19). The Arctic did not yield enough collectibles to satisfy anyone’s desire for the exotic, wonderful, or strange. It did not even yield those stable points of comparison and contrast that early modern Europeans used to shore up their sense of themselves: “Being like nothing else, the Arctic was particularly vexing” (56); “on certain Arctic voyages . . . the very idea of analogy collapsed” (50). This may seem like a relatively minor loss: who needed analogy, when what they were looking for was gold? But this loss, Heuer shows, cut right to the heart of European identity, representation, and the image debate unleashed by the Protestant Reformation, unmasking Reformers, among others, as “entranced by [unreliable] rhetorics of comparison” (49). The incomparable Arctic stripped early moderns of falsely comforting habits of organizing the world according to likeness and difference; this, Heuer argues, was what was so unsettling to them about the planet’s largest icescape.

Exposing the false familiarity that analogy can tender, Heuer scrupulously avoids putting his own project under its sign. He grants that likeness can provide flashes of illumination but not more: “That descriptions of this Arctic (‘I find in all the countrie nothing’) recall those of whitewashed churches (‘there is nothing to consider’) is coincidental, but illuminative in its language of dearth” (77). And yet, a prodigious series of analogies drives Heuer’s own writing, beginning with a comparison between the purportedly featureless Arctic and the iconoclastically whitewashed walls of Protestant churches and branching out into analogies between skulls and globes, icebergs and idols. And still further analogical divagations will suggest themselves to the reader, above all around the massive, blinding figure of what turns out to be a deliriously gray “white”—a shibboleth of race theories that were beginning to take shape in exactly this period, figure of beauty, purity, truth, the imageless God, and so on into the echo chamber of languages that are always generating more gray noise than meaning, and raising questions like these: What happens when a mythically “white” race of explorers advances headlong into a mythically “white” landscape? What happens to the glacial sheet of white powder on Queen Elizabeth’s face?

By establishing the terms for such questions, Heuer invites us to imagine the more mechanical art history that might answer them, a discipline that dispatches “true reports” on the comparable and coincident things that cross our radar, without driving humanist concepts in between. This would be a “cold” art history, mounted against the “hot” advance of capital—against its incessant accumulation of sentiment, among other things—since we may, in fact, need fewer icebergs sweating it out for our benefit in the public square.

Amy Knight Powell
Associate Professor of Art History, University of Southern California