In 2013, Emma Stibbon travelled to both ends of the earth: from Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula to Svalbard in the High Arctic. From these expeditions she brought back experiences that took shape as monumental, evocative portraits of icebergs, records of an already vanishing world.
Nancy Campbell visited Emma Stibbon’s studio in Spike Island, Bristol, to learn more about her work.
You call yourself an ‘artist explorer’. How have your travels in the polar regions affected your sense of landscape?
Expeditions have always intrigued me. Actually being somewhere and experiencing a place, especially when it’s undergoing some kind of dynamic transition, is important to me. My interest is in landscapes that display evidence of erosion or a sign of how they’ve come into being, I want to try and capture that.
My first trip to Antarctica in 2005 was extraordinary: watching the full cycle of ice moving and calving into bergs right in front of me; learning about massive ice sheets snapping off, like the Larsen ice shelf; I’ve been committed to it as a project ever since.
Recently I’ve participated in two fieldwork voyages: I sailed for five weeks with the Royal Navy on HMS Protector down the Antarctic Peninsula reaching Rothera research station which lies 67 degrees south, the furthest south I have been. Then in June I joined an expedition in the Arctic, with the arts organisation Arctic Circle: we tracked up the west coast of Svalbard for three weeks. One of the reasons I decided to make these trips was to observe the ice sheets and glaciers of the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. Being able to witness these vast, icy expanses provoked me to consider the beauty and ultimate frailty of the Polar regions.
Can you tell me about the drawings that emerged from these expeditions, which will be exhibited in Berlin?
I am making a series of large-scale drawings looking at the complex physical shapes of icebergs – I want to record their identity despite the fact they are changeable and melting. I’m trying to pin down their presence at one moment in time, suggest how the apparently permanent can be so fragile.
Ice is something monumental and solid, but then glaciers move very slowly, imperceptibly but definitely, whether they’re receding or advancing. The effects in Antarctic and Arctic waters reminded me of the Impressionists’ work – you can’t quite decide on reflection, substance and atmospherics, where things are spatially. In these drawings I want to suggest that what you’re seeing is only a small part of something, like the 90 percent of the iceberg that is out of view.
How does your work respond to climate change?
Although my work is intended as an aesthetic response there is often a political underpinning indicating an unstable terrain. My interest in location is often triggered by background research, for example a recent published scientific assessment of future sea level rise from ice sheet melt highlights 'a conceivable risk of forced displacement of up to 187 million people within this century'. Polar ice melt is an urgent issue, many coastlines and islands are disappearing under water. I want the work to draw the audience into the debate so that a viewer might start to think about what ice is exactly, and where we are heading.
How can an artist connect the public with these remote places?
Most people will never get the opportunity to experience these extraordinary, fragile landscapes. I would like my work to be an immersive experience for the audience. Traditionally artists engaging with the Sublime would allow the viewer to gaze at the danger from a position of safety, my interest is to invite the viewer to enter the frame through the composition and material construction of the pictorial space.
What role can a contemporary artist play in documenting these environments through drawing, especially with so many advanced digital technologies for recording data?
Visual recording has always been important to polar science; in the days before photography, expeditions would have needed an artist for recording observations but now of course modern technologies produce a much more profoundly accurate record. So is there any point in a contemporary artist attempting to record a landscape through drawing? I believe that a human response to place is still meaningful, that the tactile quality of drawing connects with people on an emotional, visceral level. The process of drawing fascinates me; the correspondence between media and subject is central to my struggle to equate an experience with a drawn mark. I often draw with media that is friable or fragile, such as chalk on blackboard to try to connect the elusiveness of the subject in the material fabric of the work. For me the act of drawing has almost magical qualities, allowing me to connect the physical world with memory.
Emma Stibbon RA was selected for an Artist’s Placement with HMS Protector and the Royal Navy, organized by Scott Polar Research Institute (10 Feb – 15 March 2013) and by The Arctic Circle for their Summer 2013 expedition to Svalbard (14 June – 2 July 2013).
The exhibition, Ice Mirage, will be shown at Galerie Bastian in Berlin from 16th Jan to 28th March 2015.
Header image: Bergs (trio) 2014 Watercolour, graphite and aluminium powder, 152.5 x 198.5 cm
Nancy Campbell's poetry and artist’s books are a response to the coastal communities of Northern Europe and the Arctic. Since working as Writer in Residence on the remote island of Upernavik in Northwest Greenland in 2010, Nancy has undertaken residencies in Iceland, Denmark, the US and the UK, where she is currently Visual and Performing Artist in Residence at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. Her critical writing is widely published and she is the editor of international contemporary art magazine Printmaking Today.
Nancy has previously written about the work of Emma Stibbon for The Island Review.