Reflections on Svalbard

I can honestly say my overall experience in Svalbard was life changing. I was hesitant about going to Svalbard before I made my artist residency application as I didn’t want to add to the problem of mass tourism in a fragile arctic area. I believe these places should be kept to the experts or at least kept in a way where there’s not hundreds of cruise liners piling into the delicate fjords every single day. I knew that by going here on the purpose built expedition for artists and scientists and documenting it in way where I was able to show back to people the fragility and sublimity would be important. Not many people will ever have the opportunity to see the top of the world and I feel incredibly fortunate to have done so. I feel I made the complete most of the expedition, anytime I could I was out on deck soaking that High Arctic right up, I went on every single landing as I found it imperative to examine the landscape, walk around, study the geology and more importantly feel immersed in that dangerously beautiful wilderness.

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I now feel it is imperative in my practise to create a large body of work made from this inspiring place, I aim to address the issues of climate change in a way highlighting not the devastation but the powerful wild beauty. If you too can feel the sheer sublimity of these landscapes perhaps you will be inspired to protect and preserve them. We take action based on our emotions above anything else. Art impacts our emotions more effectively than a report so this is what I intend to do; make the work to show to others.

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I learned a lot about climate change in Svalbard, I know it is there where it is the most apparent but I understand more so now the effects of it. The calving of the glacier ice is part of a process, the breaking off, the large pieces melting in the water which is warmer than the air, eroding into smaller pieces, this is all natural yet it’s happening faster than what it’s able to grow at the back, this is climate change. It’s happening too quickly for it to catch up, hence the reason why glaciers are retreating so drastically. The planet is becoming too warm for it to slow down. I spoke to locals who told me that it’s bizarre that it was raining in October, this is virtually unheard of in Svalbard at that time of year, and vast areas of the sea had still not frozen over when only a few years ago they had frozen over by September. Changes are happening up there and the wildlife is having to learn how to live in a terrain that is warming up, not something that the arctic is used to.

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This affects us all. It may seem like it’s the top of the world and it’s far from us, but reports have predicted that by the end of 2020 there will be arctic ice free summers, how are the wildlife supposed to live then? Water is also expected to rise by 10ft by the centuries end, this means that all low lying islands on our planet will be underwater, never to be seen again, communities wiped out by the melting of the arctic and Antarctic ice.

All of these things and more are happening on a grand scale in Svalbard and I know it seems you are up against a losing battle but I feel by sharing these stories and what I encountered from the landscape and the local people, it’s highlighting it, it’s putting it out into the world so others can learn from this and realise that climate change is not a myth. It’s on our doorstep, it’s up to us to make collective changes and live in a way where we are helping it not making the problem worse.

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I realised in Svalbard it is the only place I’ve ever been where the land is so completely barren. The landscape is so indifferent to us that it wouldn’t even decompose your body if you died out there in the wild frontier, the land is in perpetual permafrost, no layers to be dug into, no fresh earth, just rock and ice, everything frozen in time. Humans aren’t meant to thrive there and maybe that’s why we feel the thrill being there, you are tiny in an unknown place.

A dangerous beautiful untamed place where all of the senses are focused on the elements and you are completely at one with nature. It is above us, it is around us, everything else is irrelevant apart from your survival when you are in amongst these landscapes, how refreshing, how primal. It’s taken me weeks to process the visual inspiration I received in Svalbard, I’m sure years to even let what I encountered sink in, it’s for sure though, it’s definitely going to provide me with enough research and inspiration to last me a lifetime.

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I slipped into the silence of the night, the weight of the land around me, I was isolated on the terrain and I felt the magnificent space, energy space, time space, just so much space. Everyone’s concept of the north is different yet when I think of it and I’m sure many of you will agree, you think of adventure, you think of the untamed and you think of the unknown.

I had so many conversations on the boat, about the sublime and how none of us had ever felt so overwhelmed before, we are so tiny against the landscape and I think when you accept this and know this you become a lot more calmer for it, you can melt into that landscape to never be seen again and it sits fine with you, for the real earth is around you and it is here where the power lies above you.

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Going South after the trip and ‘connecting’ back to the outside world I realised how many insignificant emails I received, some important, most were not, how much time we waste online. In Svalbard the feeling being in such a place that was dangerously beautiful, (the sublime) and knowing that no humans can thrive there made my mind quiet as all of my other problems were so irrelevant. Going back to a city was an experience, not the best one, a constant bombardment of outside influences that you don’t ask for, bright lights, unnatural saturated advertisements, the constant flowing of noise everywhere; sirens, traffic and the constant hum of people, all a very stark contrast to the natural noise of the ice beneath the boat, the wind flowing around us and the glacier calving in the distance, all part of us. I aim to keep that level of peacefulness within me in day to day life.

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We met a lady from the north towards the end of the journey who said ‘carry the north with you in your heart’, and I intend to do so.

I also found a quote recently from Gretel Ehrlich which I think fits perfectly with what I felt so profoundly in the Arctic, ‘up here, planes of light and darkness are swords that cut away illusions of permanence’.

‘There is the sense here that at any moment, all certainty could be undermined, that the land could just reach out in an instant and pull you in to it’.

It is constantly shifting, so vibrant, so tangible and sublime. Let’s protect it.

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