Elizabeth McTernan - exhibition and project from Ars Bioarctica Residency
posted by Erich Berger on 26 September 2018

Bioart Society is delighted to share the research of Elizabeth McTernan, an artist-in-residence at Ars Bioarctica Residency in 2017 who presented the outcome of her stay in Kilpisjärvi in the exhibition ‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’ at KN: Space for Art in Context in Berlin. Her show in Berlin, which was the second solo exhibition of the artist in this city, was open to the public from November to December 2017.

As Kika Jonsson, curator and co-director of KN: Space for Art in Context, writes in a curatorial text:

‘Elizabeth’s artwork asks: how can we relate to hyper-objects like outer space and our natural world? How can we understand our planet when our own methods are so susceptible to human error? What if actual understanding lies in that error? And, if “seeing is believing,” how do we comprehend that which we do not see?’

The artist herself writes in her essay ‘Squaring the Circle’:

‘We had gone [with Dr. Luke Wolcott, editorial notes] to the Arctic to see lemmings and to see ourselves seeing lemmings, to see what science sees and to see what science can’t see: to see, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. We saw some of these things and more, for above all we saw that we were seeing things.’

The artist continues:

‘The phrase “seeing things” has a figurative meaning in English: it refers to hallucination, to seeing things that aren’t really there. Subjective impression is misrecognized as objective representation, such that the inside of the observer becomes the outside being observed. The point of departure for our research was the role that human observation plays in science, particularly the way that the subjective act of counting – in all its inherent imperfection and error – forms the empirical basis for “objective” knowledge and data collection. Scientific observation still relies heavily on the naked eye, a human lens for looking at landscape, wildlife, the Other, and our project was designed to pose questions to that looking. What is the significance of human witness to the state of ecology in marginal landscapes? What are its limitations, and what are the stakes of not seeing, or of simply losing count? What stands to be lost? What stands to be gained through the embodied knowledge of counting in an age when we rely on abstract quantifications to maintain a sense of truth and ecological orientation? And what if the scientific gaze, turned outward, ends up merely recording itself? What if it is, in a phrase, seeing things?’

During the Ars Bioarctica Residency, Elizabeth McTernan, with her mathematician collaborator Dr. Luke Wollcott, chose to work with lemmings as their subject of research. As McTernan writes in her essay, there were several reasons for this decision:

‘They were already under study by scientists in Kilpisjärvi, such as Dr. Heikki Henttonen, the foremost lemming expert in Finland. Lemmings were the right size for unaided naked-eye counting from the ground. And, on a semiotic level, they were and are culturally synonymous with blind populism, thanks to their misleading depiction in the infamous 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, where herds of lemmings are portrayed committing supposed mass suicide by jumping off a Norwegian cliff. Our goal was to take a firsthand eyewitness count of the local lemmings in a strictly controlled area to compare against Dr. Henttonen’s own population estimate. So we went out in the field above the Biological Station, and on the high barren slopes of Saana Fell we roped off five quadrats - 25 square meters each - on the ground as case-areas. Then, for five nights surrounding the summer solstice (June 21st), between the hours of 10pm and 2am, we each took alternating two-hour shifts observing these case-areas.

We had four protocols:

1) we would each conduct our respective two-hour observation periods alone and in silence;

2) we would each observe from the same post and not move from that position for the full two-hour interval;

3) we would keep our eyes focused only within the square and not let our eyes wander outside of it during the observation period; and

4) we would take notes in a shared field notebook on our basic, unanalyzed observations, such as the weather, our coordinates, our disposition, and activity within the square.’

An example of one of the reports:

S E E I N G   T H I N G S

Report #5, as of 23:59, 21 June 2017

Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station

Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Date:  21 June 2017

Start time:  22:00

End time:  00:00

Name:  Elizabeth McTernan

Bearing:  272˚

Weather conditions:  Cold and blustery, with spitting rain, a little ice/sleet, and gray skies.

Position:  69 degrees 03 minutes 11.22 seconds N

                20 degrees 47 minutes 04.38 seconds E

Disposition:  A bit lethargic, but the cold is making me alert.

Observations:  Taller grass in this case area, so more movement in the wind; reindeer passed through the square left to right without affecting the borderlines (total number of reindeer uncertain, as many as ten, while definitely four passed through the case area); a bumble bee swerved into the case area, lower left-hand corner; roughly forty minutes after the first time, a bumble bee flew to the same spot – I wonder if it’s the same bee and I just didn’t see it fly out, or if it’s a second bee.

Lemming count:  0

Her essay goes on, 'Every square that we put in the landscape was a square with the potential for something more: not necessarily the black square of modernism, of Malevich, but the blank square. A site for projection. The emptiness of each quadrat was not absence as death, but absence as the potential for a presence: for something else (an other, an alternative, an unpredicted future) to come rushing in to fill the void. These squares in the landscape did not retreat from the light, but were laid bare by an unending, 24-hour Arctic summer day. The perpetually lit square framed everything that was physically, detectibly there, as well as everything that wasn't there: all of the thoughts, visions, mirages, desires, anxieties that the observer placed inside it.'

‘Elizabeth transformed this narrative research into decidedly non-narrative forms, such as gridded objects, light, and images, in a constellation that points out the contradictions that occur when we impose a grid on the slippery and unfathomable natural landscape. Using the black square as a launching point, Elizabeth uses abstraction and form to examine the interlinked nature of our scientific classification systems: meteorological, astronomical, and geological. The artist explores how we use the perfect square, a shape that rarely occurs in nature, to define nature,’ as Kika Jonsson describes.


Artist Elizabeth McTernan (b. 1981, NY, USA) performs research over land and sea, processing it through actions, installation, drawing, printmaking, text, and artist's books. She exhibits and speaks internationally, and has been invited as an artist-in-residence at numerous reputable institutions across Europe and the United States. Recently, a paper she coauthored with her collaborator, mathematician Dr. Luke Wolcott, has been published in the MIT Press Leonardo Music Journal. She currently lives, works, and walks in Berlin and is an active member of the award-winning Berlin-based cultural association top e.V.

Discover more about Elizabeth’s work

Know more about her solo exhibition