Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Shivers! Gargantuan glaciers to overtake Auckland Museum

Their nicknames are Ernest, Lincoln, Jacques, Deacon and Yoko and they sizzle like bacon in a frying pan, roar as loud as thunder, pop like gunshot or fizz the way a newly poured soft drink does.

They are among the most remarkable entities new media artist, photographer and film-maker Joseph Michael has ever seen. Now he's bringing them - in all their 1:1 scale glory - to Auckland War Memorial Museum as part of the Arts Festival.

Ernest and co are Antarctic icebergs painstakingly photographed and filmed so they can be projected onto the outside of the museum for a three-night show, Antarctica: While you were sleeping.

The 360-degree projection is the first of its kind in New Zealand and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. For many of us, it will be the closest we get to a full-scale iceberg and, thanks to Michael's collaboration with composer Rhian Sheehan, we'll also get to hear it crack, drip, creak and groan.

Icebergs make a surprising amount of noise, notes Michael who has long searched out the rare and sublime in the natural world, fusing photography and technology and creating extraordinary multimedia works.

He's worked with some of the best in the business, including on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit where he used "revolutionary" motion control techniques, built 3D time-lapse rigs and created 360-degree cinema experiences.

His latest "cinematic collision of nature and architecture" started when, at a photography exhibition of his work in 2013, a friend asked what was next and floated the idea Michael should take a closer look at icebergs.

When he started to look - online, initially - he realised there was a lot more to the frozen masses than we know. They have a distinctive colour palette; they have their own caves and crevices. Naturally, the next step was to gather a team of photographers, editors and sound technicians and head south.

Travelling aboard the Australis, a 75ft steel-hulled motor sailor skippered by veteran Roger Wallis, Michael's first introduction to the Antarctica peninsula was at night.

"We turned up at night and couldn't anchor the boat so we had to travel another seven hours in the dark and with a light on the front of the boat," he recalls. "The sound all around us was unbelievable."

The sights that greeted the team the following morning were more astounding: vast tracts of icy islands and wildlife the likes of which Michael never expected. Watching whales, seals, penguins and seabirds like albatrosses were daily experiences during the month-long journey.

Joseph Michael travelled to Antarctica on the Australis. Photo / Supplied
Joseph Michael travelled to Antarctica on the Australis. Photo / Supplied

"You're in a place where humans cannot and do not exist; we are so used to living in places where we're everywhere and here - suddenly - we're not top of the pecking order. It's its own eco-system working in and with a natural order.

"We seem to be determined to concrete over everything and almost eliminate nature from our lives."

Wrapped in polar clothing and armed with specialist equipment, team members photographed and videoed icebergs from all angles, even lowering cameras into deep ice caves. Michael says the sheer scale of the bergs was difficult to comprehend, so he took photographs with boats and people in the foreground to give a better idea of their size.

Wearing 18mm thick wetsuits, multiple layers of gloves, dives boots and hoods, a couple of team members dived in sub-zero waters to photograph icebergs from underneath. No dive was no longer than 30 minutes.

Each iceberg received a nickname, often inspired by polar explorers, and, on return, Ernest (Shackleton) was identified as being a perfect match for the walls of Auckland Museum.

Converting footage into a multimedia presentation has involved a team of technicians and editors working all over the world on time-consuming tasks. It's taken 45 hours, for example, to create 1/8th of one scene.

"Sometimes I think it would have been easier to tow an iceberg from Antarctica into Auckland harbour,' admits Michael, adding there have been "all sorts" of technical challenges that are now almost too boring to talk about.

"Overall, though, it's been an amazing process and to finally see it on the museum will be fantastic."

Auckland Arts Festival artistic director Carla van Zon says the museum and domain are perfect settings for once-in-a-lifetime arts events. She particularly likes Antarctica: While you were sleeping because it shows how art and technology can work hand-in-hand to highlight environmental awareness.

The father of a newborn son, Michael is now based in Brazil but could spend the next few years on the road. He wants to take Antarctica: While you were sleeping to iconic buildings like the Sydney Opera House and Paris' Arc de Triomphe to show the world what we could be losing.

He acknowledges there would be creative and political hurdles to overcome; each projection would mean almost starting again. No matter what, Aucklanders will see it first and Michael says given New Zealand's connections with Antarctica, that's important.

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Antarctica: While you were sleeping
Where & when: Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland Domain; March 24 - 26

- NZ Herald

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