The surreal beauty of the northernmost buildings on earth – KION546

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Eva Rothenberg, CNN

the Arctic invites you to take pictures of the void. Harsh temperatures lead to barren, sparsely populated landscapes that are inaccessible to most travelers. This inaccessibility drew the Austrian photographer Gregor Sailer to the region first.

“I like this rough atmosphere and this exciting light, in which everything is exposed,” he said in a video interview and explained 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 goes on. In these remote places, things happen that affect us all and it is important that people understand these developments. “

Sailers new Book, “The Polar Silk Road”, explores the Arctic through an architectural lens. Over the course of four years, the photographer visited Canada, Norway, Greenland and Iceland and took pictures of some of the northernmost structures in the world.

“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,” said Sailer about his early travels. He later turned his attention to around a dozen remote scientific research institutions, military bases, and centers for economic development and raw material extraction.

Similar to the region itself, these facilities are often barren and cold. Consisting of sharp geometric shapes and exposed structural elements, their functional forms stand out from the bleak surroundings.

“I want my work to show the extremely exposed nature of these facilities,” said Sailer. “I try to get an impression of the entire room in which I work and then decide which details are important in order to give outsiders access to this room.”

Building in a barren landscape

While filming the project, Sailer endured snowstorms and temperatures below minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. He used an analog camera that doesn’t rely on batteries (which can drain quickly in freezing temperatures) so he’s less worried in extreme climates.

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

At face value, the structures in Sailer’s pictures say little about their intended functions; Antennas, satellite dishes, and power lines suspended between radar towers can be found in military bases and research facilities alike. But the photographer said his pictures are more preoccupied with exploring how architecture works in the landscape.

“I wanted to capture a void that is not empty. For me it is important that the viewer feel the surroundings and the dimensions of this huge, surreal landscape, “he explains, adding:” I try to do this by taking overview shots (first) and then by going into detail so that the viewer can see it can get a better picture of the function of these facilities. “

The awareness of space is omnipresent in “The Polar Silk Road”. Sailer’s photographs do not emphasize their size, but the color and shape of the structures and allow the void to give the viewer a broad feeling for the surroundings.

Some of the buildings, such as the air defense radar towers in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada, are constructed of white or gray materials that blend almost seamlessly with the pale canvas of the sky. Other photographs show small, colorful buildings that are in stark contrast to their white surroundings, such as those of the EastGRIP research facility in Greenland.

Race for influence

The Arctic may comprise large swaths of inhospitable land, but it is now the subject of growing geopolitical concern. Actors such as Russia, the USA and, more recently, China are racing to develop new shipping routes in the region.

So it’s fitting that Sailer named his project from China Polar Silk Road initiative, a government-backed proposal to expand infrastructure and cargo shipping in the far north. The name of the book, like its content, speaks for the competition and cooperation that have shaped international relations in the region.

Several of Sailer’s photographs focus on the China-Island Arctic Observatory (CIAO), a joint effort by the two countries to collect data on solar-terrestrial interactions in the polar atmosphere, such as auroras. Elsewhere, Sailer shows a base in Alaska operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), an organization that arose out of Cold War fears over Soviet technological advances and oversees American and Canadian airspace.

But territorial claims in the Arctic are about more than self-defense – it’s about securing control over resources such as oil and natural gas hidden under the melting ice, writes Günter Köck, coordinator of the international research programs of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. in Sailer’s book.

Take, for example, the remote arctic settlement of Tuktoyaktuk (which is a chapter in Sailer’s book) on the coast of the oil-rich Beaufort Sea. For the past several decades, oil and gas companies have invested a lot in the exploration and development of oil fields along the Beaufort coast. Then, in 2016, the Canadian government announced that it was contributing Canadian $ 200 million ($ 158 million) to a new highway that would “lower the cost of living in Tuktoyaktuk … oil and gas opportunities and strengthen Canada’s sovereignty in the north” According to a government press release.

Climate change “is the engine”

According to Sailer, there is a single thread that interweaves the economic, military and scientific growth documented in his book: the impending threat from climate change.

Many of the buildings he photographed in Tuktoyaktuk are threatened by the constant erosion of permafrost. With their foundations damaged, older structures tend to tilt and sink into the ground due to the melting ice, he explained.

“Climate change is the engine of all developments, and I wanted to document that,” says Sailer. “If the ice didn’t go away, 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 analyze ice formation over hundreds of thousands of years to better understand changing atmospheric and weather patterns.

With the publication of “The Polar Silk Road”, Sailer hopes to be able to show the public how developments in the Arctic are influencing – and being influenced – climate change.

“My job as a photographer is to go to these lesser-known places where things happen that affect our society and bring those events to light,” he said. “I am offering these images with the hope of sparking a discussion and the hope that people will start thinking about these issues or looking at the world around them in a new way.”

The polar silk road“, Published by Kehrer Verlag, is now available. Photos from the series are to broadcast until April 23, 2022 at the Lumen Museum for Mountain Photography in Bruneck, Italy.

The CNN Wire
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