The surreal beauty of the northernmost buildings on Earth

Eva Rothenberg, CNN

The Arctic invites images of emptiness. Extreme temperatures lead to arid, sparsely populated landscapes beyond the reach of most travelers. This inaccessibility is what first attracted Austrian photographer Gregor Sailer to the region.

“I love this raw atmosphere and this exciting light, where everything is on display,” he said in a video interview, explaining that the Arctic “has always fascinated him”. “On the one hand, the wilderness wants to kill you, and on the other hand, life is possible and continuous. There are things happening in these remote places that affect us all, and it is important that people understand these developments. “

Sailer’s new book, “The Polar Silk Road,” explores the Arctic through an architectural lens. For four years, the photographer has toured Canada, Norway, Greenland and Iceland, capturing images of some of the world’s northernmost structures.

“It was clear from the start that there wasn’t a lot of architecture in the Arctic, so I came back with relatively little material,” Sailer said of her early voyages. He then focused his attention on a dozen remote scientific research facilities, military bases, and centers of economic development and raw material extraction.

Much like the region itself, these facilities are often austere and cold. Composed of clean geometric shapes and exposed structural elements, their functional forms stand out from the gloomy surroundings.

“I want my work to show the extremely exposed nature of these installations,” Sailer said. “I try to get a feel for the overall space I’m working in, and then I decide what details are important to capture in order to allow strangers access to that space. “

Building in an arid landscape

While filming the project, Sailer endured snowstorms and temperatures below minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. He used an analog camera that doesn’t depend on batteries (which can quickly run out in sub-freezing temperatures), giving him one less worry in extreme climates.

Working with physical film has always left the photographer vulnerable to the elements as it can be easily damaged or lost. Nevertheless, Sailer prefers to work in analog: “Part of the game is the risk. It increases my awareness, makes me calmer, and increases my awareness.

At first glance, the structures in Sailer’s images reveal little of their intended functions; antennas, satellite dishes and power lines suspended between radar towers are found in military bases as well as research facilities. But the photographer said his images were more aimed at exploring how architecture works in the landscape.

“I wanted to capture a void that is not empty. It is important for me that the spectators feel the environment and the dimensions of this vast surreal landscape, ”he explained, adding:“ I try to do this through the big picture (first) , then going into the details, so that viewers can get a better idea of ​​the function of these facilities.

An awareness of space is omnipresent throughout “The Polar Silk Road”. Sailer’s photographs emphasize the color and shape of the structures, rather than their size, leaving the void to give viewers a holistic sense of the surroundings.

Some buildings, like the air defense radar towers in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada, are constructed from white or gray materials that blend almost seamlessly into the pale canvas of the sky. Other photographs show small buildings in bright colors that contrast sharply with their white surroundings, such as those at the EastGRIP research center in Greenland.

Race for influence

The Arctic may include vast swathes of inhospitable land, but it is now the subject of growing geopolitical interest. Actors like Russia, the United States and, more recently, China, are all fighting to develop new sea routes in the region.

It is therefore normal that Sailer borrowed the title of its project from the Chinese Polar Silk Road initiative, a proposal supported by the government to develop infrastructure and freight transport in the Far North. The name of the book, like its content, evokes the competition and cooperation that have defined international relations in the region.

Several of Sailer’s photographs focus on the China-Iceland Arctic Observatory (CIAO), a joint effort between the two countries to collect data on Sun-Earth interactions in the polar atmosphere, such as the auroras. Elsewhere, Sailer depicts a base in Alaska operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), an organization born out of Cold War anxiety over Soviet technological advances, which monitors US airspace. and Canadian.

But land claims in the Arctic are not limited to self-defense – they are aimed at securing control over resources hidden under melting ice, such as oil and natural gas, writes Günter Köck, coordinator of international research programs. from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in Sailer’s book.

Take, for example, the remote arctic colony of Tuktoyaktuk (which forms a chapter in Sailer’s book) on the oil-rich Beaufort Sea coast. Over the past decades, oil and gas companies have invested heavily in the exploration and development of oil fields along the Beaufort Coast. Then, in 2016, the Canadian government announced that it was contributing C $ 200 million ($ 158 million) to a new highway that “will reduce the cost of living in Tuktoyaktuk … increase business development opportunities, reduce the cost of living in Tuktoyaktuk … cost of onshore and offshore access. oil and gas opportunities and strengthening Canadian sovereignty in the North, ”according to a government press release.

Climate change “is the engine”

There is, said Sailer, one thread weaving together the economic, military and scientific growth documented in his book: the looming threat of climate change.

Many of the buildings he photographed in Tuktoyaktuk are threatened by the constant erosion of the permafrost. With their foundations compromised, older structures are starting to lean and sink into the ground as the ice melts, he explained.

“Climate change is the driving force behind all developments, and I wanted to document it,” Sailer said. “If the ice didn’t disappear, these trade routes wouldn’t appear.

Several of the facilities in Sailer’s book are dedicated to understanding climate change, such as the ice core drilling sites in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where international researchers are analyzing ice build-up over hundreds of thousands of years to better understand atmospheric and meteorological changes.

Sailer hopes that by publishing “The Polar Silk Road” he can show the public how developments in the Arctic are influencing – and are being influenced by – climate change.

“My job as a photographer is to go to these lesser-known places, where things are happening that influence our society, and bring those events to light,” he said. “I offer these images in the hope of spark discussion and in the hope that people will begin to think about these topics or view the world around them in a new way.”

The Polar Silk Road”, Published by Kehrer Verlag, is now available. The photographs in the series are in show at the Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography in Brunico, Italy, until April 23, 2022.

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