Work Case Studies Arctic Icebreaker

In 2005 I was artist in residence on a Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. The privileged experience of travelling in such a beautiful and astonishing part of the world was both wonderful and unsettling. I made small drawings and paintings, sound recordings and took lots of photos while on the ship. Since my return I have experimented with time-lapse film and melting ice in various forms. 

Yamal in the Arctic Ocean

I found it difficult to mediate the experience and even begin to communicate the scale, power and enormity of the Arctic while laying bare the oddness and contradictions of 'ecotourism'. I found I wanted to zoom in close and look at ice on a domestic scale, exploring the apparently immutable physical and natural laws that govern us all.

Sea Change flute
 Champagne flute with ice globe

I began to freeze various materials that I then filmed as they de-frosted and I continue to experiment with this process. One of these works is Sea Change. A globe of ice melts into a wine glass etched with a delicate botanical pattern. Quietly meditative and deliberately pared down, this almost 'still life' suggests the looping of climate cycles and physical states that underpin all life on earth, and the relative fragility of human culture.

Arctic Ocean
View from Yamal

In addition to small films, I've worked on a series of photographic montages: In Two Places at Once. These diptychs contrast views of the ship interior with seascapes.

Being on a Russian icebreaker was, for me, a once in a lifetime experience. Over 100 paying passengers and 150 crew, catering and 'expedition' staff shared living space within a large double hulled vessel that clanged like a huge steel drum as it powered through the ice. The experience of moving through such a remote and wild ocean in the context of a holiday 'cruise' was as bizarre as it was unforgettable. In these circumstances anyone could travel to the North Pole and back, given the (ample) funds required for a ticket or a chance to work their passage.

The ship's interior was an odd not-quite home from home. Curtains, cushions, fake plants and wooden laminate panelling couldn't disguise the fact that this was a vessel designed primarily to break ice. These ships, and they are rare, specialised vessels, keep the shipping lanes open along Russia 's northern seaboard. They are impressive machines. In the winter they operate in 24 hour darkness, ploughing doggedly through frozen ocean on an endless graveyard shift with their headlights on full beam. As an antidote to the unforgiving winter environment and the effects of daylight deprivation they have on board a ‘green room', a small area designed to mimic a daylit natural space.

I was very struck by this odd duality, of being in the belly of a great centrally-heated ship looking out through its curtained windows as it juddered on through an environment that no human being could survive in for more than a matter of minutes without some form of technological assistance. The oddly hospitable situated within the utterly inhospitable.

In Two Places at Once
In Two Places at Once