The Purchase of the South Pole

The Purchase of the South Pole, Confiscation of the cannon sculpture by German police, Berlin, Germany, 2017



On the evening of March 1st an armed response team of the Berlin police department converged on the Malzfabrik complex in Schoeneberg. In the early hours of March 2nd they departed, having confiscated a 1 tonne ‘sculpture’ of a canon that was due to be exhibited at the 1st Antarctic Biennale – an international art festival under the patronage of UNESCO that took place between March 17-28 on the world’s southernmost continent.

At the time of the confiscation the work entitled The Purchase of the South Pole, was located on the grounds of its Berlin based creator’s studio. The sculpture by artist Julian Charrière takes its inspiration from Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole, in which a mysterious company buys up ownership rights to huge swathes of Arctic land. Having done so, they proceed to design and build a cannon so powerful that its recoil is projected to shift the Earth’s rotational axis, thus displacing (and therefore warming) the previously frozen ground in order to make it suitable for commercial exploitation.

Charrière’s cannon sculpture was due to be symbolically ‘fired’ in Antarctica – It’s payload? A coconut collected during the artist’s recent expedition to Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands (site of American atomic testing in the late 1940s and 1950s).

According to the artist, the performance was conceived “as a dramatization of various issues that are, fundamentally, interlinked. Namely, the global threat posed by man-made climate change, and the ongoing militarization of the Arctic as part of a geo-strategic scramble for resources (now that this region is no longer inaccessible due to melting ice). The location of the performance in Antarctica was due to highlight the importance of international demilitarization agreements, such as the 1959 Antarctic Treaty that suspends sovereign claims, reserving the continent for peaceful scientific enquiry. But the idea is not limited to this specific geographic locale. Peace and ecological thinking are deeply entwined. The international community needs to recognize this.”

Co-Curator of the 1st Antarctic Biennale, Nadim Samman: “The Antarctic Treaty was envisioned at the height of the Cold War, when there was a very real possibility that the continent would be used for nuclear testing, or that a war would be fought over its strategic control or resource exploitation. Happily, today, the region is chiefly dedicated to the pursuit of climate science. Among its various implications, Charrière’s project likens the prospect of climate change to a weapon whose devastating results may surpass even our worst munitions in the long run. In light of the sculpture’s confiscation by the police, it seems that the work also taps into other – more commonplace – security paranoias. In fact, climate change is just as threatening.”