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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rachel Hazell & her Antarctic bookworks

I recently met the artist Rachel Hazell, a book artist whose work I admire (website here). I’m particularly drawn to her Antarctic bookworks, informed by her experiences of visiting and living there. I more or less doorstepped her on her last trip to London and she kindly answered my nosy questions:


What was your initial attraction to Antarctica?

I was in South America, taking photographs of glaciers. A friend said I should apply for an artist’s residency. I did a semicircumnavigation of Antarctica, from South America to New Zealand. We did landings at Cape Evans and Cape Royds, where Scott and Shackleton’s huts are. It was very, very moving. Scott’s hut had damage from over the winter. Ice had backed up on the walls. Snow was melting on to it. Scott’s hut had a more sombre atmosphere. Shackleton’s hut felt warmer or cheerier. I don’t know if I just imagined that, knowing what happened.

Do you feel that bookworks fit well with the Antarctic landscape or did you feel you were working in opposition with your medium to generate the forms you wanted?

I saw books and paper in Antarctica. I would like to take it further. I would like to write a book on the paperiness of Antarctica. I’ll give you an example. The crevasse lines on a snow field look like a page of notepaper with writing on. The striations where a glacier has ground lines into a sea bed look like the pages of a book. It might not seem an obvious link because ice is wet, but paper comes from water. The creation of paper is a very wet process.

Do you aim for a figurative representation or a more symbolic depiction?

I’m still trying. I do want them to be quite figurative. When I got back from Antarctica, I could hardly sleep. It wasn’t just jetlag. I would look back over old physical geography textbooks and learn about glacier tongues and so on. We may not have an indigenous language in Antarctica, so we don’t have 50 words for snow or whatever, but the descriptions we do have are very graphic: growlers; bergy bits; porridge!

What are your thoughts on people visiting Antarctica? 30 000 tourists went last year.

The numbers are down by 8000 from the year before. I hope that they can be ambassadors for the continent when they get back. It’s a delicate ecosystem. IATTO [International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators] does a great job.

Have you read Scott’s Journals?

Yes, I read them as a teenager, and biographies that portrayed him as a hero. I read about Cherry-Garrard; by Sara Wheeler. But I also read Huntford, a reevaluation. What comes across to me is that for Amundsen, it was about the competition and reaching the pole. That was it. But with Scott, there was so much more. He’s passed so much  knowledge and data to us that we’re still using – it’s just priceless what he’s left us.

What next?

Antarctic paperworks are not over. At the moment, I’m focusing on being a bookbinder closer to home. The Sun Valley Art Gallery, Idaho, will exhibit my Antarctic work soon.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks

Statue of Peter Scott at WWT Barnes Wetlands Centre (picture credit: Michael Reeve)

On Thursday, I went to the launch of Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks. This book comprises a careful selection of pencil drawings and watercolours done by Dr Wilson, who accompanied Captain Scott as Chief of Scientific Staff, confidant and friend on both the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions to Antarctica. Fittingly, the launch was held at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Barnes, London as the WWT was founded by Sir Peter Scott, Captain Scott’s son.

Dr Edward Wilson’s great nephews, Dr David Wilson (ISCE Chairman) and Christopher Wilson explained that they wrote the book in the hope that the images will inspire a new generation of scientists and conservationists. David Wilson highlighted what an extraordinary seed Captain Scott planted when he wrote in a parting letter to his wife for her to ‘make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games’. How much easier if would have been to say, ‘make the boy join the navy’ or ‘send him to a top school’.

Christopher and David Wilson

The ramifications of this mindful parenting bequest are staggering. Peter Scott helped to found the world conservation movement, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whose panda logo he designed. David Attenborough made no bones about our debt to Scott, Wilson and their colleagues.

David Attenborough. He recalled his first visit to Scott's Hut on Cape Evans, Antarctica: 'There was a musty smell of rope, tar and antiquity.' He added that, 'If I ever believed in personality after death, that was it.'

David Attenborough said that Peter Scott’s conservation efforts succeeded in a way that was possible for the first time. I imagine he meant that worldwide broadcasting was still new, and that ecological understanding was freshly mature enough to support large-scale conservation efforts. It seemed right for this sentiment to be expressed by David Attenborough of all people, given that his very successes have also coincided with landmarks in pioneering mass media, e.g. colour television.

This reminded me of something expressed by the artist Ben Coode-Adams, who is currently matching Captain Scott’s mileage on a daily basis until March 29th (he blogs with inimitable frankness here - I don't arrive at almost any of the same conclusions as he does, though): one of the bases of his interest in Captain Scott’s story is the notion of ‘being of your time’. It’s difficult to imagine that a broadcaster today can make as big a splash as David Attenborough now that we have hundreds of digital channels; and it’s doubtful any terrestrial explorer is going to capture the public's imagination as much as Captain Scott and his men have.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Norway - training and selection

Joe, me and Henry

Well, it’s been an incredible fortnight! I joined the other three remaining ISCE2012/Telegraph Competition candidates for a training/selection event in Norway. We were based in Gargia, 69°N, i.e. 800 km within the Arctic Circle. Our base was a fjellstue or travellers’ lodge along the Beskades Highway. Our local host, Per-Thore Hansen, explained to us that the government spaced these waystations approximately 33 miles apart so that passersby could take shelter in stormy/blizzardy conditions. Most of these fjellstue were bombed off the map in WWII, but have been rebuilt and privatised.

When we weren’t pinching ourselves, we were steeped in polar adventure training. The first few days were quite gentle. We were lectured on various aspects of cold weather survival, including first aid, historical precedence and communications. The Deputy Expedition Leader, Geoff Somers, (adventurer and serial Antarctic revenant) impressed on us the contrast between the absolute isolation of Scott’s crew in Antarctica and the connectivity of modern expeditioners, who are required to radio in updates every two days.

After some preparatory practical learning (tent routines; working the gas pressure stoves), we set out for a week in the wilderness. Henry and I shared a tent with Geoff, while Joe and Kathryn shared with Antony Jinman, Expedition Leader. Starting at 100 m above sea level, we hiked uphill, above the tree line (200 m) to approximately 400 m, where the terrain was characterised by tundra. It’s been an unseasonably balmy November in Finnmark (northern Norway), so there was only enough snow cover to cross-country ski on one day. I’d never worn skis before, so I did my best to discredit Per-Thore’s ‘bambi-on-ice’ predictions!

Learning to pull a pulk (sled) was an initiation right in itself. We negotiated turns, snags, bogs and stream-lets, marvelling how much less energy it takes to pull a load than to carry it in a backpack. Sadly, winter days are short in the arctic, so we soon grew accustomed to being in our tents for extended periods, swaddled like Russian infants. I felt that Henry, Geoff and I made a happy unit, and I’m sure the other three got to know each other well, too.

However, my favourite moments were when we were on the move, calmly alert (pacing, keeping an eye out for stragglers and regulating our ‘clothing systems’ for temperature control) and alive to our achromatic surroundings. I’d never seen so much snow in my life. At times I felt as though a fifth chamber would open in my heart to take in the Northern Lights, the powdery crunch underfoot and the slate, Nordic horizon.

We were asked to blog throughout our adventure, so for a day-by-day snapshot, please click here or here. More pictures to follow.

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Hot off the press: Henry has won the ISCE2012 competition. Henry's a good egg and a very deserving winner. Well done, Henry!

About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.