I sailed into the high arctic at the beginning of last winter on board a 1957 fishing boat retrofitted to appear like a tall ship. This floating art and science residency brought artists together from around the world for a three week adventure along the northwestern coast of Svalbard. My colleagues arrived in Lonyearbyen from far flung cities such as Shanghai and Seoul and Barcelona and Luxembourg and Athens and Belgrade. Together we endured close quarters and trying circumstances--rough passages and bad weather and multiple unexpected mishaps and detours not the least of which included a broken desalination machine which greatly limited our supply of freshwater. By the final week we were at sea we only had four hours of workable light per day for making landings, each of which required elaborate preparation. Four rifle toting women would make land first to clear a perimeter in which we were allowed to work, and once we were on land we had to work fast in dim light and weather so bizarrely warm and wet it was hard to believe we were actually in the high arctic.
When the Norwegian glass artist Lene Tangen asked the me to join the Korean photographer Han Sungpil in documenting her attempt one morning to construct an ephemeral work of ice sculpture I was deeply honored. Much of Lene Tangen's work focuses on the arctic environment, and though it is often only minimally representational is nonetheless obliquely documentary as she often focuses on the freshwater ice itself as it is rapidly vanishing from the planet.
Above are details from some of here recent work (images courtesy of the artist). You can see more of her work on her website http://lenetangen.com
The day we attempted to document Lene's work we were in Fuglefjorden, a fjord on the northernmost coast of Svalbard just shy of 80° North. We had arrived there on the eve of polar darkness which essentially meant that the sun would would clear the mountains to the east only one more time before the entire region would sink rapidly into total darkness for much of the next four months. Most days we set out for land in dense twilight and returned again in near darkness which was made all the more dim by the frequent heavy rains and fog banks rising out of the water-scored permafrost, but the morning I shot this footage had dawned remarkably cool and clear. All seemed well. All was well--until it wasn't.
We had been sailing for ten days at that point and we had had no access to news of the world. Questions about the weather were forbidden for reasons none of us understood, but nonetheless we had a pretty clear idea that something unusual was unfolding. It rained hard almost every day, which was bizarre given that the arctic is typically so cold and dry year round it technically is classified as a desert. It rained so hard we sometimes found ourselves slogging through deep mud. The glaciers continued calving when they should have been freezing up for winter, and virtually all the snow had been washed from the mountains across the whole archipelago for the weeks we were at sea-which was very unsettling to a photographer like Han Sungpil whose book Polar Heir features some of the very same landscapes through which we were traveling, images shot at the very same time of year just a few years earlier--images that offer what you would expect to see in the high arctic at the beginning of winter: snow and ice. As we sailed northward I came across Han Sungpil many times leaning against the rail of the ship staring at the reddish muddy slopes of the mountains where snow should have been shaking his head and saying again and again where is winter? The same was true for my cabinmate Julia Wellner, a medium format photographer based in Geneva, who had also declared her love of the look of an arctic winter as we all remembered it, but that landscape was very hard to come by in Svalbard late last year. A headline in The Independent Barents Observer last November read: "It Used to Snow on Svalbard."
The morning we set to work on documenting Lene's sculpture we were pleased to find ourselves working under clear skies, the first good weather in several days. We headed to the island beneath the glacier before dawn to make the most of what light we had. Sunrise that day was around 10:15 AM and sunset would follow quickly thereafter, around 2:30 PM. Han Sungpil choose to remain on the high point of the island to set his cameras up for a time-lapse of Lene sculpting while I remained down on a separate rock ledge at water level with Lene. The pieces of ice she was sculpting were too heavy to carry to higher ground. As luck would have it, Han Sungpil trained a third camera on the glacier's face which allowed him to capture the moment a large sheet of ice peeled away and crashed into the fjord sending a series of smallish tsunamis over the island where Lene and I were just getting started. The first wave washed her sculpture away entirely, taking along with it her gloves and her knife. The two of us ended up huddled on the highest point we could find hoping against hope that the outgoing tide was just low enough to keep us from being swept into the fjord.
Polar Eve consists of a single 24 minute take of B roll footage of my attempt to document Lene's sculpture. I had just finished setting up my sound when the tsunami struck and her work was swept away entirely before I had a chance to capture anything with my second camera. In the end, I decided the real time footage, unadorned and uncut, captured the reality of making art in extreme circumstances that were made all the more extreme by climate change. I replaced my field recordings of the ambient sound with the NASA recordings of plasma wave data from the sun translated into sound waves for that seemed most fitting. The summer of 2016 was the warmest year on record and the sea ice in the arctic basin melted to such an extreme extent that there was suddenly vastly more open ocean than ever before in this geological era, its shimmering black surface drawing down the heat of the sun whereas once upon a time the ice would have repelled the heat back to space.
Lene has included Polar Eve in a solo show of her recent arctic work in Oslo, playing my uncut, real time version of the tsunami alongside Han Sungpil's elegant, timelape version of the exact same event. Lene's work is on display in Gallery Formati in Oslo until mid October including Polar Eve and Han Sungpil's Ice Sculpting.
You can see more of Han Sungpil's installations and photography at his website http://www.hansungpil.com His latest book Intervention (Hatje Cantz, 2016) is available for sale online.