Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Chris Watson

Chris Watson | 11th January 2019

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends consider the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. As we begin the new year, Chris Watson looks back on 2018:

Recording out on the lake

A large metallic cooking pot was lowered onto a mat in the middle of the kitchen table, steam billowing in clouds, and the contents slowly revealed as the air cleared. Maybe half a dozen whole reindeer tongues lolled against each other inside the pot. Now I’m fairly used to local delicacies around the world: guinea pig stew in The Andes, crocodile sausages in Australia, boiled jellyfish in Japan and fermented mare’s milk in Kazakhstan. The sight of the tongues however rendered me, for a few moments, speechless. The menu also included reindeer blood and oatmeal cakes, fine reindeer bones which one snapped and sucked the marrow from and finally, thankfully, a large pot of boiled potatoes. This was a traditional Sami meal of fine food prepared in my honour at the Sami Dáiddaguovddáš – the Contemporary Arts Centre – in Kárášjohka, Arctic Norway at sixty nine degrees north in mid February. I was invited there together with the Sami Yoiker Ánde Somby to create a 16-channel sound installation of our work from the Lofoten Islands and give a live performance of Ánde’s highly regarded bear, moose and wolf yoiks.

Ánde Somby

The occasion was part of the celebrations in Kárášjohka to welcome the return of daylight after a six week period of darkness during which the winter sun never rose over the horizon. The brief daylight hours now were intense, featuring a piercing blue cloudless sky and a sharp stinging quality to the dry still air. With daytime temperatures around -26C, exhaled breath freezes quickly and sparkles blue and white before returning as frost back onto the muffler which, out of necessity, covers your face.

After sunset the long dark hours were magical. Our cabin had an inside sauna and regularly around midnight we would emerge from the 80C heat, nip though the living area and jump outside into the -33C night air, the Aurora Borealis rippling green and yellow overhead. Once Maggie ran back into the kitchen, filled a mug with boiling water and tossed the contents into the night sky, creating a small cloud of powdered snow that landed over our bare feet. In awe of the sky it took a couple of minutes for the massive temperature shift to register and cue our return back inside.

I recorded a version of Ánde’s bear yoik across a frozen lake by the Finnish border. This was a site chosen for its spiritual significance for the Sami. What was immediately apparent to my ears was the particular acoustic properties of a flat icy surface some 3km long by around 500m wide, bordered by stands of conifers and birch marking the northern fringes of The Taiga. I set my mics up more or less in the middle of the lake whilst Ánde crunched 300m away across the ice.

Out of the stillness the bear yoik came at me from all sides; sharp snarls directly over the frozen surface, menacing growls relayed from the woodland edges and deep low tones rolling back from the hills behind us. A raven responded with a few warning calls as it passed overhead. There appeared to be bears all around and we appeared to be stuck in the middle of a frozen lake some distance from our snowmobiles and welcoming firelight.

2018 was off to a good start.

The transport