Simon Faithfull: Interview

Simon Faithfull is the first visual artist to win an Arts Council fellowship to travel to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey. Most of the two month trip was spent on board RSS Ernest Shackleton, which was taking scientists and supplies to the Halley Research Centre where they spent only five days before returning.

  • What did you plan to do there?

    My proposal was about the journey. My previous work has often involved humdrum and anti-heroic journies, such as a bicycle ride up the River Lea from Silvertown (opposite the Dome) to its source under a tower block in Luton, where water emerges from a concrete culvert and trickles over beer cans. En route I made drawings on a palm pilot of anything that caught my eye, then stitched them together into a scroll, which I posted on the web.

    The journey to the Antarctic was during the southern summer. There were about 60 people on board, mainly scientists and steel erectors who heighten the stilts on which the base is built, because one and a half metres of snow falls each year. The station is ten kilometres inland from where we docked, and when we arrived we were the only people the scientists there had seen for eight months; 12 of them stay there all year monitoring the weather and the hole in the ozone layer and drilling ice cores to map climate change, but there’s a post office where you can buy postcards and stamps and have your letters franked!

    What is the landscape like?

    I was afraid I’d come back with images looking like photographs from the National Geographic, but it’s the opposite of scenic. Antarctica is a huge glacier, which is absolutely flat and cloud-covered, but the light is almost supernatural in strength; its intensity is more than your eyes can deal with. The sun doesn’t set and there’s a weird phenomenon called ‘ice blink’; the underside of the clouds glows white with light reflected off the ice, so there’s complete white-out, which is utterly disorientating. Because there’s no moisture, the air is crystal clear and you can see further than ever before. But because there’s no horizon line, you lose all sense of scale and, instead of a landscape unfolding towards the horizon, there’s literally nothing to see. As you walk you can hear your feet making footsteps, but you can’t see them because there’s no definition or contrast, so it feels claustrophobic – as if everything were folding back on itself. I’d gone all that way to see the wilderness, but there was absolutely nothing to see, except the stuff brought there by people!

    Why did you stop at Stromness?

    That was a fluke. It was the place that Shackleton had managed to reach after spending two and half years on board a ship locked in the ice. Six men rowed 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia, but they landed on the wrong side of Stromness and had to cross Alpine ranges to reach the whaling station; there were about 100 whalers there at the time; it was like a gold rush town.

    I was allowed ashore because the captain of our ship wanted his crew to get some training landing small boats. I spent about 75 minutes in the abandoned station filming the seals. It was almost midsummer’s day and it was snowing; that’s as good as the weather gets!

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