Canadian cinematographer aAron munson delves into depression in the midst frigid isolation
dc3 Art Projects opens Isachsen next week, an exhibition that dives into the mind of filmmaker aAron munson’s father, who spent one solitary year in Canada’s desolate arctic at a weather station known as Isachsen.
“In that trauma he found something up there, or through that experience, that kind of gave him a trajectory for where he wanted to go with his life,” Munson says. “The fact that he persevered is why I’m here.”
Munson had not known the toll frigid isolation had taken on his father until he read a diary of his past experiences. The filmmaker decided to take a giant leap last spring and charter several flights into the depths of the arctic, 40 years after his father had returned home.
“Getting to the station was a challenge in itself just given how far north it is,” Munson says. “You have to charter your own plane because you have to get to one of the most northern communities in the world, like up in Resolute Bay, and then you have to charter a plane from there to go even further north … it’s on the edge of the Arctic Ocean up there—I think it has the worst weather in Canada.”
To get a sense of Isachsen’s location, Ellef Ringnes Island was northeast of the magnetic north pole in 1994, though now (because the magnetic poles are constantly changing) the island is just slightly southeast.
“It’s just completely exposed to the wind coming up off the Arctic Ocean, and although it doesn’t snow a lot up there, it blows so you get these incredible drifts—sculptures in the snow. The elements are like this kind of adversary that’s trying to get to you and the snow just comes in slowly but surely and buries everything. Even entire buildings are buried in snow. You might as well be on another planet. It’s like being on the moon.”
Four flights, eight bags of gear, one local guide, and $30,000 later, Munson arrived at Isachsen.
Although the weather station has been closed down and abandoned since the ‘70s, Munson was determined to explore the impact the remote Ellef Ringnes Island environment and subsequent isolation had on his rural Ontario-raised father, who was 19 at the time of the endeavour.
“In some ways I think it changed him for the better, but it definitely changed him nonetheless,” Munson says. “It felt like something I wanted to pursue in understanding. Depression is something that’s been in my family and passed down genetically it seems, so I’m trying to understand how I deal with depression myself and understanding how he was experiencing it.”
The result was an exhibition that includes various multimedia elements, including sound, sculpture, photography, and video to fully capture the experience of being there. He also notes that one element will include VR to experience the station for yourself, amongst the snow-swallowed buildings and howling wind.
Seeing beauty in the isolated is something that Munson has made a career on. His travels have taken him to reindeer nomad camps in Siberia, the Arabian Desert and he has procured work as a cinematographer on CBC’s 2015 series The Great Human Odyssey.
Munson and David Hoffos held an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta in 2013 that explored the history of the Isachsen weather station before he went in April of 2016 but after, Munson felt something was still waiting to be created. So he reached out to fellow artists Dara Humniski and Gary James Joynes to collaborate alongside him and Hoffos to create a multimedia exhibition that later became Isachsen.
The feeling of being in Isachsen, for even one week, had a profound effect on Munson himself as well, which helped him to appreciate how drastically the experience had changed his father.
“There’s this one diary entry in the dead of winter in January. It just talks about how the isolation has been just wearing on him and he’d been in pretty deep state of depression and just trying to fight off suicide. He had talked about just being tempted to walk out into a blizzard … and that would probably be it.”
Munson’s aim from the beginning was to uncover the feelings and effects of falling into deep depression, and found his father’s experience had been a remarkably similar comparison. With a ceaselessly howling wind, primitive radio communication, monthly supply drops, and three months of complete darkness in the winter, Isachsen was it.
Isolation has many parallels to depression, something Munson drew upon in his piece. Having experienced depression himself and seeing depression in members of his family, a great amount of Munson’s personal work follows themes of isolation.
“You don’t need to be at the end of the Earth to feel what he felt,” Munson adds. “Depression is a powerful thing, it is a form of isolation in itself. For me, when I’ve experienced it, you feel like everyone else might as well be on the other side of the Earth. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it.”
One technique of addressing the many stigmas still surrounding depression is to bring it into public discussion with tools like Munson’s Isachsen.
“It’s ironic because we’re more connected than ever but I think in some ways, we’re less connected than ever because we’re so scatterbrained,” Munson says. “It’s important to understand that even though we live in a world where we’re so connected, that isolation is still a very real thing for a lot of people.”
Sat., Jan. 13 (1 pm)
Isachsen artist walkthrough
DC3 Art Projects
Exhibiting until Sat., Feb. 17