Sea Change: Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Witnessed the Arctic's Destruction ... and Found a New Artistic Direction

By Ackroyd, Heather; Harvey, Dan | New Statesman (1996), June 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sea Change: Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Witnessed the Arctic's Destruction ... and Found a New Artistic Direction


Ackroyd, Heather, Harvey, Dan, New Statesman (1996)


Slipping quietly out of Tromso through the Norwegian fjords on board a hundred-year-old Dutch schooner, the Noorderlicht (Northern Lights), none of us was really aware what kind of voyage lay ahead. We sailed out to an area of sea fondly called the Devil's Dance Floor, where the current from the Gulf Stream meets the cold Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. Swells reach 30 feet, and all but the most hardened sailor turns a paler shade of green. The painter Gary Hume, one of our companions on board, said of the art of retching: "Oh, I just spit up like a cat when I need to, then get on with what I'm doing!" It took three days to reach Svalbard in the High Arctic, a place on the edge of existence.

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The campaigning organisation Cape Farewell has so far led three Arctic expeditions for a collective of artists, scientists, writers, educators, journalists and environmentalists. The aim is to demonstrate at first hand the effects of global warming, and to encourage us to report, in our different ways, from the front line of climate change. As visual artists, we were invited by Cape Farewell's founder, David Buckland, in early 2003. Others on our expedition included the artists Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread and the writer Ian McEwan. A forthcoming exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, "The Ship: the art of climate change", showcases some of the products of our extraordinary voyage.

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Our induction to life in the Arctic involved hours of hanging on to a Skidoo and gripping each other's backs as we drove miles through a frozen wonderland in temperatures of -30[degrees]. Never had we experienced such cold. The physicality of being in this place reduced the need for much introspective thought; walking across the tundra, we slipped into another reality. Everything we laid eyes on was phenomenal and intriguing. We watched walruses heaving themselves across the land, their clumsy movements totally at odds with their engaging grace and agility in the water.

Evidence of man's intervention was plain to see. In the Russian coal-mining town of Barentsburg, black coal dust stained the white ice; on Moffen Island, hundreds of walrus skulls lay without tusks. The shoreline was littered with fishing nets, plastic bags and plastic buoys. There are moves afoot to "Clean up Svalbard", and on our last night on ship we all became recipients of a small Svalbard badge. It stirred a kind of Blue Peter mentality, that we had done our tiny "good Scout" bit to help sustain this island. Would that it were so simple.

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An artwork emerged out of our experiences in this extraordinary place: a six-metre-long skeleton of a minke whale encrusted with a chemical growth of clear alum crystals. It has the appearance of a fossil frozen in a crust of naturally brilliant ice crystals. The exploitation of Svalbard brought home to us the scale of the slaughter of these creatures. They were hunted for their oil in the 19th century, and now climate change is damaging their ocean habitat irreversibly.

Since the trip, the question to which we artists find ourselves returning is: "In a world of continuous change, how and why does change matter?" Our work is transient; it involves processes of growth, change, decay and erosion. …

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Sea Change: Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Witnessed the Arctic's Destruction ... and Found a New Artistic Direction
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