The Art of Svalbard, May 23-June 1, 2015

I was in Svalbard specifically to look at public art deployed around Longyearbyen—the statues of polar bears and miners, and the light works on the Global Seed Vault for example—as part of my examination of how a brandscape was being constructed in the Arctic. But I was also interested in the larger realm of artmaking in the archipelago. One of the first topics to research was 19th century tourism postcards, the earliest of which date from 1896 and tended to feature fjords, polar bears, glaciers, and the midnight sun.

Hilsen fra Spitsbergen (“Greetings from Spitsbergen”) printed by G. Hagens forlag in 1899.

Hilsen fra Spitsbergen (“Greetings from Spitsbergen”) printed by G. Hagens forlag in 1899.

Modern-day glossy color postcards focus mostly on promoting touristic views of polar bears and the auroral borealis, and most Svalbard art during the 20th century remained based on landscape painting traditions. This was in line with what I expected, comparable to the branding of the Swiss Alps, the Norwegian fjords, the Grand Canyon and so forth in the Euro-American tradition of the sublime.

But in 2003 the art of Svalbard went decidedly contemporary when David Buckland began taking major contemporary artists, such as Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, to the archipelago in an effort to engage the public with climate change. He has since led eight art & science expeditions to the islands. The popular Arctic Circle program soon offered similar opportunities for a price, although now the best option for artists may be simply to book passage on the ship everyone uses, the ice-strengthened two-masted schooner Noorderlicht, which is stationed in Longyearbyen.

I want to focus on just one artwork arising from those voyages, Nowhereisland by British artist Alex Hartley, who sailed with Buckland in 2004. While circumnavigating Spitsbergen, Hartley found an island about the size of a football field that had recently emerged as a glacier was retreating. He was the first human being to set foot on the tiny patch of newly revealed land, which was eventually named Nyskjæret.

Image of Nyskjæret when first discovered. Image courtesy of Alex Hartley.

Image of Nyskjæret when first discovered. Image courtesy of Alex Hartley.

Hartley returned to the island in 2011 and moved some of its glacial till onto a barge. Once  Nowhereisland was in international waters, Hartley declared it an independent nation. He then proceeded to have it tugged to Weymouth, England and then around the southeast coast to end in Bristol, a 2000-mile-long journey that ended when the island was dismantled and given away in pieces.

Nowhereisland under tow. Image courtesy of Alex Hartley.

Nowhereisland under tow. Image courtesy of Alex Hartley.

The ice goes out, new lands are uncovered, territorial squabbles arise over national maritime boundaries . . . Hartley’s intervention is a self-aware land art performance, and he cites, among other works, the floating island barge envisioned by Robert Smithson, Tania Kovats’ Meadow barge from 2007, and When Faith Moves Mountains, the Francis Alÿs performance piece of 2002. But it is also political theatre that highlights global warming, international competition for natural resources, and the fickle nature of national boundaries.

Svalbard, by virtue of its location at the limits of sustainable habitability, is like the Antarctic, its communities dependent on outside resources for survival. Unlike the Antarctic, however, it’s relatively close to the developed world and thus able to host a range of artists seeking to engage the edge of civilization as an arena for their work. I use the word arena, as any art committed in such difficult locations has an element of performance to it, even just erecting a view camera or a painting easel, much less moving part of an island. Most of the contemporary art made in the archipelago is less about permanent installations, and, very unlike works on the Norwegian mainland that are commissioned in order to attract tourism. is more pointed at issues.

Before Nowhereisland was dispersed, it had attracted 23,003 people from 135 countries to sign up as citizens, who wrote the constitution for Nowhereisland, which in its first iteration consisted of one hundred principles and conditions. It remains online, a provocation about the nature of migration and global change. Nowhere island. Now here is land. No where is land.

Map of Arctic sea ice thickness and extent, March 1988 vs. March 2013. Svalbard is the star-shaped land halfway between the coast of Norway in the upper right and Greenland. Image courtesy of the NOAA Climate.gov team, based on data provided by Mark Tschudi, University of Colorado.

Map of Arctic sea ice thickness and extent, March 1988 vs. March 2013. Svalbard is the star-shaped land halfway between the coast of Norway in the upper right and Greenland. Image courtesy of the NOAA Climate.gov team, based on data provided by Mark Tschudi, University of Colorado.

Climarte, Melbourne, May 3-7, 2015

Dale Cox, Tract 17, acrylic on canvas, 2013

Dale Cox, Tract 17, acrylic on canvas, 2013

Flying into Australia just in time to help moderate a “Climate Art Slam” is one way to deal with jet lag. You just jump over it. Modeled after the Anthropocene Slam at the University of Wisconsin last year, Australian artist Mandy Martin and historian of science Libby Robin decided to host a similar “cabinet of curiosities” during the Melbourne’s “Art + Climate = Change Festival.” Climarte, the sponsoring organization of the festival, is the brainchild of former gallerist Guy Abrahams.

Guy kindly tips his hat to our Art + Environment conferences, which he’s been attending since 2012, as an inspiration, but his event involved more than 25 exhibitions at most of the important visual arts venues in Melbourne, as well as dozens of public performances, lectures, and public information interventions. Terrific exhibitions by photographer Rosemary Laing, painter John Wolseley, and the Arnhem Land Aboriginal artists John Mawurndjul and Gulumu Yunupingu were among them.

Rosemary Laing, The Paper, Tuesday, 2013. A large photograph from Laing’s Weathering series of newspapers spread out in the forest and rained upon was showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Rosemary Laing, The Paper, Tuesday, 2013. A large photograph from Laing’s Weathering series of newspapers spread out in the forest and rained upon was showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Libby and I were joined by one of the leading climate change policy experts in Australia, Peter Christoff, and we led a rousing hour during which artists presented their climate-related work at Australian Galleries, and we responded. Australian Galleries is one of the oldest, largest, and most prestigious galleries in the country, and it was an extraordinary commitment by the owner, Stuart Purves, to dedicate a major space to the exhibition, which included noted artists such as Janet Laurence, John Wolseley, and David Buckland from the UK.

One particular artist I spoke enthusiastically about was painter Dale Cox, who showed a two-piece work, one object a toy truck hauling away a painted forest, the other a painting of a gum forest burning above a cut-away exposed strata of geology, a series of “Tract” paintings for which he’s noted (the one shown here at the top is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney’s major art museum).

Dale Cox, Logging Truck V, 2013, plastic toy truck, acrylic on wood, cord.

Dale Cox, Logging Truck V, 2013, plastic toy truck, acrylic on wood, cord.

David Buckland, founder of the largest and longest-running art and climate project in the world, Cape Farewell, and I gave keynote lectures during the next two evenings, and toured many of the exhibitions, including the largest gathering to-date of David’s own photographs from the Cape Farewell expeditions to Svalbard in the Arctic, language pieces projected onto icebergs.

David Buckland projection and photograph from his exhibition at the Melbourne School of Design. Buckland’s projections onto icebergs floating in the fjords of Svalbard include his famous image of the words “Burning Ice” on the book of the same title. The volume documents early expeditions in the history of what is now 15 years of climate-related art projects sponsored by David’s Cape Farewell organization in the UK.

David Buckland projection and photograph from his exhibition at the Melbourne School of Design. Buckland’s projections onto icebergs floating in the fjords of Svalbard include his famous image of the words “Burning Ice” on the book of the same title. The volume documents early expeditions in the history of what is now 15 years of climate-related art projects sponsored by David’s Cape Farewell organization in the UK.

People are asking Guy to hold the event again next year, but he’s wisely planning it to be a biennial event. The next one will be, we hope, held in 2017, the same year as the fourth Art + Environment Conference here in Reno. Guy and I plan to be crisscrossing the skies to attend the events.