Three men on a hydrogen balloon take on an expedition over the Antarctic. They would crash after only two days and ultimately get trapped by the upcoming polar winter, perishing on the White Island in Svalbard after three months of trekking south.
The expedition’s remains would be found thirty-three years later, in 1930. These included a diary and five exposed film rolls belonging to one of the three men, photographer Nils Strindberg, who had documented their doomed last days of survival.
Freely inspired by the expedition’s photodocumentary, set designer, filmmaker, and director Sabine Theunissen has recently released ‘White Box Jacket‘, a 30-minute animated film and a tribute to the expedition’s photographer and his faith in art.
The film inverts events in time, reinventing their meaning whereby drama becomes a dreamlike and poetic tale.
The movie is going to be screened on July 20, 2022, in Portalegre, Portugal as part of the Marvão International Music Festival and in an augmented version with a live dancer and musicians.
Theunissen’s White Box project also comprises filmed lectures, workshops, and a future staged version.
To learn more about it, Scenography Today asked Sabine Theunissen to recount her creative journey through this unique story.
The White Box project
Written by Sabine Theunissen
It all started in Stockholm in September 2017 while visiting an installation at the Moderna Museet. It was a video piece of the Irish artist Gerard Byrne filmed in the diorama of Stockholm’s Biological Museum, which I had the chance to visit before its closure.
Like Gerard Byrne, I have been fascinated by this gorgeous place that tells about illusion, artificial nature, and its staging in a photographic—and theatrical—way using daylight and 360 degrees view.
Next to the video installation was a small room dedicated to early photography—a sort of footnote for Gerard Byrne’s work. Here is where I first saw one of Nils Strindberg’s pictures.
A small black-and-white photograph showing a gas balloon lying on the ice whose label reported “Polarex Expedition 1897”. A great mystery and narrative energy emanated from the image. It struck me immediately and wouldn’t leave me; I would only be able to explain the fascination at a later point when I learned the story behind it.
Nils Strindberg, the young Swedish photographer who took this photo, participated in the famous “Polarex” expedition led by engineer Salomon Auguste Andrée in 1897. Departing from Spitzbergen, Norway, Andrée planned to fly over the North Pole in a gas balloon to either Russia or Canada, depending on the direction of the wind.
Andrée, Strindberg, and a third man, Knut Fraenkel—aged 43, 25, and 27, respectively—departed on July 11, 1897, with great fanfare, under the eye of politicians, the national and international press.
They never came back.
Their disappearance remained a mystery for over three decades. All theories about the explorers’ fate emerged in the sensationalist press. But as time passed, hopes of ever finding the missing members of the expedition dwindled; even Anna, Nils Strindberg’s fiancée, ended up marrying another man.
Thirty-three years later, in August 1930, an icebreaker landed on Kvitøya—or White Island. Usually inaccessible, constantly surrounded by thick ice, and hidden by freezing mist, the Island of Kvitøya is legendary for whalers and walrus-hunters. On that day, in a stroke of fortune, neither ice nor fog kept Captain Peter Eliasson and his team (including the scientist Gunnar Horn) from landing on the Island.
As luck would have it, two of the hunters, Olav and Karl, stumbled upon the buried remains of the “Polarex” expedition. While looking for potable water, a metal hook sticking out of the ice caught their eye. As they dug it out, they uncovered parts of a boat, tools, utensils, a logbook, human remains, and, finally, a camera and film rolls encased in a lightproof box.
So, they brought their finds back to the mainland. The papers rushed to cover the nationally significant discovery; reporters were sent to meet the returning trawler. The negatives of 240 photos taken by Nils Strindberg could, at last, be developed after 33 years of slumber under the ice. Ninety-three images were salvaged, thanks to John Hertzberg and his team at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Unfortunately, Hertzberg died shortly after and left the archiving of his work unfinished.
Sixty-six years later, Tyrone Martinsson, a Swedish researcher and photographer, discovered a box with unlabeled negatives while preparing his Ph.D. thesis about panoramic arctic landscape photography. He immediately recognized Nils’s pictures developed by Hertzberg.
Eventually, he understood the misunderstanding. The negatives that were known so far were actually copies of the originals made by Hertzberg as a spare record in 1930, while the box he found by coincidence contained the original ones. They must have been misplaced in an attic of the Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm after Hertzberg’s death.
They had been forgotten and exposed to temperature and hygrometric differences all these years. When Tyrone found them, they were almost unreadable. Still, they were of better quality than the slightly blurry copies. Comparing both, Tyrone managed to deduct new clues about the expedition. For instance, at the bottom of the original negatives, there is a black strip that was not visible in the copies, showing signs that Tyrone managed to decode. They indicate the date, time, geolocation, and direction.
This is how it was possible for the first time to put back these seven pictures in their original order and find out that they were forming a sequence, a panorama.
After Nils and Hertzberg, Tyrone is the third messenger to report the history of the expedition’s pictures.
These photographs surpass Strindberg’s ostensible role of recording the expedition in images. They are works of art, deeply evocative posthumous witnesses to the wanderings of three men during three summer months in the arctic. We can read everything in them, what they show and what they hide.
A sensitive and perceptive man, Nils Strindberg preserves his modesty and dignity as he carefully chooses his compositions even in their growing distress. Andrée probably wanted to document their trek to garner glory and fame. Still, looking at the photos, we feel that Strindberg, who must have been conscious of the ineluctable failure of the expedition, exceeds his commission. In a simple, humble, even detached fashion, he deliberately writes their story so that it could survive.
Years have passed since I first saw the photo in Stockholm. I have studied the other pictures and the details of the expedition; I read their diary. Yet, when I look at them today, I have the same emotional response to their enigmatic nature.
One question has stuck with me over all this time.
It’s not a question of knowing how far they walked, in which direction, at what pace, how they lived, what they ate, or even how they died. Rather, it’s a question of their will, against all odds, to leave (us) a message, no matter how unlikely or even impossible it was that anyone would receive it.
In this hopeless and extreme situation, Strindberg forged an intimate link with destiny, fortune, vanity, and death, but also with us.
The series of photos sublimate a concrete and factual record into an ode to beauty, nature, courage, and time. Strindberg’s work testifies to a desire for survival at the next level.
The miracle of its double discovery is fascinating. It represents a moral inheritance, captured by Strindberg’s lens and saved twice by Hertzberg and Tyrone, that reveals the question of anonymous legacy, coming by fragments and layers that anyone can make their own
Infinte Landscape – the starting point of a project
The reference to Eadweard Muybridge seems interesting to start talking about my project.
At the end of the 19th century, artists drew a philosophical borderline between reality and illusion. In this context, photography was a new medium that could bring equivalent objectivity for the first time.
For Eadweard Muybridge, photography was a true revolution, a way to be able to see around and behind us. He developed specific devices and lenses to scan the landscape as a full circular diorama. The limit of the image was no longer a frame, but it became an infinite landscape.
He also invented a unique system to capture and decompose the movement in a series of still frames. He set a battery of cameras and ultrafast automatic shutters along a track the horse would trigger while galloping. This is what he called locomotion. This means that after defying the limit of space in photography, he was now defying time. For his locomotion experiments, he used a physical grid drawing lines on the floor and wall as an objective reference for motion. He was then able to consider the movement out of its constituent parts. This study leads us to the new idea that movement is fixed and time is mobile.
Nils Strindberg, like Muybridge, was adept at panoramic photography. The panorama is one of the keys to the project. It brings together all the elements of travel, both realistically and metaphorically. Directly linked to photography, it speaks to us of infinity. More generally, it evokes space, movement, time, and of course, the theatre, where it is used as an illusion of a landscape.
The drifting of a project
My project’s name is White Box. It comes from a contraction between White Island and BLACK BOX. The black box refers to the camera and photography, of course, but also to the sealed box keeping all the secrets and memories that will be revealed—a metaphor for Memory and Legacy.
With the discovery of the pictures, their own story and the story they documented, I felt in charge of a mission. I had to stage them. The form was still unclear, but it would surely have to do with photography and movement and their uncertain combination in a scenic project.
I perceive the expedition as a fable of movement—first the ascent of the balloon, which takes off in the air defying gravity.
Its slowdown, its loss of altitude, the load shedding, its sudden ascent (which will be fatal to them), and the hydrogen leak causing its soft fall on the ice floe.
Then the traction of the heavy sleds on the hostile icy ground. Their painful progress is nullified, in reality, by the sliding of the pack ice, which drifts in the opposite direction under their feet.
Then the course change to the South-West pushing their walk against the wind.
The back and forth to move the loads 3 or 4 times after abandoning the sleds.
The weight of the last loads is finally carried on the back when all other solutions have been abandoned.
The pressure of the ice plaques against each other, the ground cracking under their shelter built on the pack ice when it collides with the ring surrounding the White Island. Lost in the fog, it will be the end point of their journey.
These movements all describe contradictory forces and tensions, the starting point of the dynamic vocabulary.
The question lies in the translation of the pictures in theatre, in a physical space. How to stage all the impressions carried by them without killing their mystery, their poesy?
This expedition is famous and has already inspired many directors, filmmakers, composers, and novelists. Most of them based their works on a re-enactment or a reproduction of the three explorers’ expedition and fatal journey.
From my side, It was clear that it was the photos’ miraculous journey to inspire me rather than the facts of their expedition, even if the two seem inseparable.
This is probably why I was holding myself back from telling the story with words; I was rather interested in a tale using its essence, its material.
It became clear that dance was the way to bring all the pieces together, as opposed to words, to create a place for theatre’s magic, a possibility for transformation and illusion—a possible meeting between physicality and spirituality.
At the same time, I met Gregory Maqoma, a South African choreographer and dancer with whom I collaborated on a stage creation at the Tate Modern (The Head and The Load). Seduced by the enigmatic force of the images, he agreed to embark with me on the adventure. I moved towards a stage form based on movement, images, and music, towards a theater of objects where the stage would be transformed continuously following the course of the three men.
Following my scenographer’s habit, I start working by building a model. It is, for me, an unavoidable step, like a warm-up; it is my way to think. The model has this extraordinary power to gather people and immerse them immediately in the project intuitively.
At this stage, the model looks like a big leporello that can take different shapes. The audience is installed on a large tribune completing the octagonal shape of the panoramic set. I still have in mind the Biological Museum, also octagonal, that works like a panoptical place where the sight is central and looks all around. And of course, also still in mind is the research about the panoramic vision of Eadweard Muybridge.
The model is articulated to fold and unfold to evolve during the play. It would slither as if it was on the ice flow. At first, it would be a projection screen, like a lengthy background making a landscape, an “infinite” like we say in theatre. It would then shift towards an architecture that recalls the octagonal construction of the balloon house.
I replicate the clever wooden structure of the balloon house made out of scaffolding with triangular landings. It reminds me of the Biological Museum’s white cotton border that masks the painted diorama’s top limit.
At that time, my father was ill. During his last period, he is aware of his coming death. He started to tell me about his life, methodically, chapter by chapter, going back in time as if the clock was turning backwards.
The last time he talked to me, he recalled being six years old and learning to ride a bicycle.
This has been a revelation to me; it confirmed my first intuition and led me to a decision.
I was going to rewind the story to tell it backwards and, therefore, get rid of its concrete and pragmatic side. The polar expedition transcends the news item. It is a tale dedicated to memory, legacy, fortune, and death.
This is how I started writing a script that rewound the story found in their diary. Starting from the national mourning days of the three heroes’ funerals in 1931, until the very first preparatives of the expedition, before their departure in 1897.
Reversibility turns situations in their meaning; for example, dying turns into coming alive, leaving into arriving, but it also reverses the physics and the dynamics of the actions and movements. Let’s imagine a pendulum swinging backwards. The impact at the beginning, the back and forth that gets narrower and faster becomes an awkward movement that begins with a shy shaking and then grows up but stops suddenly as if a magnet had swallowed it.
We defy the rules of Gravity.
At last, reversibility teases the logic of reality and changes it to magic. An igloo that crashes takes its perfect shape back miraculously; a water splotch becomes a perfect drop.
Somehow, reversibility is to time what negativity is to photography.
This process offers enormous flexibility to the narrative; it opens a window for fantasy and creativity, dance, music, playfulness, and oneirism.
The project becomes a distortion of the true story. It transforms its destiny. The failure of the expedition is turned into a victory, the drama into hope.
If dance would give life to photography, I had to think of music, another vital aspect of the project.
First, we cannot forget that Nils Strindberg was a violinist, and his fiancée Anna, a pianist. He carried music within himself like an inner treasure, a magical force that kept him alive. The music represents the absence and the nostalgia of what they had but kept inside them, the warmth, the memories, the comfort, the faith, and the love.
But beyond the biographical aspect of the music, I also wanted to invite to the composition the atmospheric surrounding and the sensory or organic feeling of struggling in the Arctic. Breath, heartbeats, impacts, flapping of the gas balloon fabric in the wind, squeaking and crashing ice, storm, and animal crows (including the cooing of the pigeons they carried as messengers) would refer to the loud «silence» of the White Island’s rough and hostile nature and the restless labor of the men to pass through it.
I first invited a music composer, then another. Both wanted to head for the opera, which would have had a written narrative line and supporting libretto. I resisted this form and prefered to stick to a free and experimental approach.
This is how I finally invited Catherine Graindorge, a Belgian violinist and composer, to participate in the project. I like her experimental and accumulative approach. The violin is at the heart of the journey; it is Nils’ instrument and its link with dreams and love, memories, and comfort.
With the pandemic, meetings and residencies were cancelled. Nevertheless, I started an animated storyboard to advance the preparation of the show by filming, inside the model, the characters cut out from the photos that I manipulated with pliers. I built the miniature props, resulting in 4 short episodes that I called White Box Pocket.
The pandemic persisted; however, I wanted to continue the project and keep the energy of the artistic collaborators alive.
I refocused the work, detached myself from the script and focused on the photos again. I choose eight of them, one for each collaborator. I sent them without informing them of the choice made for the others. I asked everyone to send me a reaction without giving them a directive.
I received seven responses, three dance duets from Gregory Maqoma (choreographer), a text from Tyrone Martinsson (photographer specializing in glaciers and Nils Strindberg), a text from Adélaïde de Caters (artistic accomplice and in charge of documentation), three fork objects by Jonas Lundquist (inventor, props designer), a piece of music by Catherine Graindorge (composer), a miniature costume by Greta Goiris (costume designer). I awarded myself the fragmented photo of Anna found in Nils’ pocket.
This a priori heterogeneous material, which could look like an exquisite corpse, led me to a new story I built like a puzzle where I wanted to find a place for each piece. I remained faithful to the inversion of time.
The result is a storyboard, the starting point for an animated film project, which I will call White Box Jacket.
I was absorbed in my studio, where I work experimentally with the means at hand and in a small team. For the first time, I practiced—with my mobile phone—photography, film, and editing
White Box Jacket, a 30-minute animated film
White Box Jacket is a 30 minutes animated film. Without speech, it is freely inspired by the expedition’s photographic documentary left to the fate by Nils Strindberg (astronomist, physicist, photographer, and violinist).
Resolutely artisanal, the film is a tribute to the photographer of the expedition and his faith in Art.
It twists the true story told by the diary found on White Island in 1931 (the balloon failed three days after its departure, on July 14).
The three men drifted on the ice floe until September 12, struggling first against currents that pulled the ice in the opposite direction under their steps, then against the wind for six weeks before deciding to let themself drift on ice in a self-constructed igloo which crashed against Kvitøya (the White Island) on October 6. From then, we have no more notes, but we assume that Nils was killed by a polar bear and buried by his colleagues. Fraenkel’s body was found in the rest of their tent, while Andree’s remains were lying on a stone with a flask of morphine next to him. They passed three summer months in the North Pole, where night resembles day, always light out, and the sensation of time passing is supplied only by a watch’s motion.
The field is made of ice, covered by snow; the misty sky is perpetually white and impossible to distinguish from the ground; everything is the same, endless and white. Without a horizon, the notion of space only exists on the face of a compass or in the count of steps taken.
It’s cold. Constantly wet and poorly equipped, they walk and camp for three months, effortfully, uncomfortably.
In inverting these events in time, the film reinvents their meaning. It turns the drama of the expedition into a dreamlike and poetic tale that starts in their camp on White Island, where they help each other to come back to life. They are driven by the current, wind, and magic forces towards the ballon, which inflates and takes off to bring them back safely to Svalbard, where Nils finds his fiancée.
The film questions memory, especially the memory that precedes death.
I regard it as a photographic journey into memory, talking about grief.
If the jacket of the title can be interpreted as the cover of a book or the beginning of a story, I mostly perceived it here as a layer, both in its metaphorical form related to time (the history was revealed through the transparent and erased layers of Nils pictures) and its physical form, as a protecting layer, like an envelope.
The way that the three men wrapped their documentation (we found the rolls of the negatives, the logbook, the notebooks, the meteorologic reports, and many biological & geological specimens carefully/tightly packed to resist humidity, cold, and wind)
It reminds me of writing a will. The jacket is its guardian/keeper, almost like an angel.
The jacket, a metaphor of grief (mourning its owner), participates in the legacy, as it contained and protected Nils Fiancee’s picture, the diaries, the notebooks, and the bodies.
It is interesting to note that the jacket was a recurrent figure in the material that I received from my collaborators (in their duo, the two dancers were throwing their jackets in the air, and the response of the costume designer was a small-scale jacket, like for an unexisting puppet)
This film is a first experience for me. I got there by chance. I built it with the means at hand, my photocopier, my telephone, my daughter’s bedside lamp, and equipment borrowed here and there from my children and nephews. It depicts the story and my universe, that of the workshop and the model.
In December 2020, while all the schools, theatres, and institutions were shut, the Squatelier (my studio) looked like a factory for many hands.
My first exercise/test was to animate the three dance duo’s in stop motion, cutting out the dancers in movement that I printed still, frame by frame.
In total, my intern Pia and I will have cut out about 4800 figures, a practice close to therapy, a bit addictive, and almost obsessive. But mostly, it was a fantastic way to observe and zoom in over the dancers in motion.
After that, we replaced them in the 3-dimensional space of the model, taking the objective lens of the camera as our reference. I set them in the expedition pictures for the second duo as if the men were back to life in their polar landscape, escaping/defying their faith/destiny.
The film begins with the magic reconstitution of Anna’s picture. I decided to weave back the story from her point of view as if she was going back in her memories. I wanted to keep close to the pictures and the paper. Anna was Nils Strindberg’s fiancée; she was a pianist and got engaged to Nils just before his departure.
Her portrait has been found almost erased, on the White Island, in Nils Jacket’s inner pocket. We also found in Nils’s package the letters that he wrote to her.
In the film, my hands represent her presence as an older woman, showing us the salvaged pictures, one by one, starting from the last, sharing an intimate treasure and bringing them back to life in her way.
With this film, I also took my very first steps in the field of editing; I discovered an exciting world that I couldn’t imagine leaving.
White Box Jacket – Live
Last summer, I got an invitation from the Marvão International Music Festival in Portugal to première the film White Box Jacket in Portalegre on July 20, 2022, for the festival’s next edition. I suggested to the festival’s director Christof Poppen to accompany/augment the film with live dance in front of the screen (with Thulani Chauke) and two musicians, Catherine Graindorge, the violinist who composed the music of the film, and Angelo Moustapha, the percussionist who completes Catherine’s part with his personal rhythmic, dynamic and earthy energy. It is remarkable to note how the live music and dance could make us watch the same film with entirely new eyes as if we had just discovered it. This is a very refreshing experience for a filmmaker.
For this live version, I added an 8-minute-long portfolio showing some of the original pictures of Nils Strindberg, who inspired the film.
Sabine Theunissen, White Box Jacket Live, rehearsals at La Monnaie, Brussels, June 2022 | © Sabine Theunissen
A reversable journey
Another project variation is a 1-hour and 15-minute long film/lecture that I made for a seminar organized by Paris 8 University in collaboration with Porto Novo University (Benin) and the Center for the Less Good Idea (Johannesburg). The theme of the seminar was Archive photography and controversed memory.
In this introspective speaking film, I recompose the journey of the project, paralleling the fragmented story of the expedition and the destiny of the lost and (twice) found photographs. By turning the pages of my diary, I follow—chronologically—the many long detours of the process journey, which first moved from photography to theatre, passing then through film to eventually go back to the original theatre form.
The film will be screened with live talking at the Center for the Less Good Idea this August 5.
White Box – The stage version
A year ago, an invitation came from the Orion Theatre in Stockholm to host the project’s premiere in its scenic form in 2024.
The material accumulated along these long years might finally meet its original meaning in a theatre performance on stage.
Video, live music, moving set, articulated objects, one speechless actor, two dancers, costumes, and light must take/find their place in a theatre show.
The Orion theatre is quite an intriguing industrial shed from the late 19th century. On my first visit, I was charmed by the space and team. It looked like the perfect place for this expedition.
I immediately built a model to think about the staging, based this time on the film.
Since then, we have had two workshops in Orion. A few weeks ago, the last one was a symbolic step in the project’s construction since we could gather the whole team for the first time. Finally, Gregory and I could work side by side on stage with the dancers, the performer, the musicians, the video, objects, and costumes. A lot of discoveries and confirmations of hopes happened. I was relieved to see that the dialogue between the film on one side and the music and performers on the other side was possible at all.
The dancers’ physicality and the live music’s impact—violin and percussion—bring the roughness that the project needs to mirror the spiritual side of the film. I was astonished by the complementarity between the two athletic dancers and the tall skinny actor. Equally magic was the camera on its tripod taking life in front of us and becoming a character on its own.
The vocabulary has been found, the seed is planted, and now it can grow.