Review: Art in a hostile environment

The Antarctic might seem an unusual place for a creative residency, but artist Chris Dobrowolski found it hugely inspiring. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Antarctica is one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. A bleak, hostile environment, largely unpopulated by human beings, it might seem an unlikely setting for an art project – yet a few years ago that is where artist and performer Chris Dobrowolski found himself.

For three and a half months in 2008/9, he was artist in residence with the British Antarctic Survey and he is bringing his show, Antarctica – a witty performance lecture about his experiences – to Sheffield’s Theatre Delicatessen next week. Essex-based Dobrowolski, who is visiting lecturer in sculpture at Leeds Beckett University, studied at Hull College of Art from 1988-91 and specialises in making what he calls landscape sculptures, particularly vehicles. His first project while still a student was making vehicles – which included aeroplanes, hovercrafts, tanks and a giant pedal car – “to escape from art college” and so when he saw the advertisement for the residency with the Antarctic survey he came up with a typically idiosyncratic idea. “My proposal had two strands to it – I said I would build a vehicle, a sledge made out of gold picture frames,” he explains. “The other part of the project was to take out with me lots of toy figures, such as plastic penguins and snowmobiles, and photograph them in the landscape next to their real-life equivalents.” The idea was to emphasise how small mankind is in comparison with such a vast natural wilderness.

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Proposal accepted, Dobrowolski headed off to the ice on board a research ship. It was a longer than anticipated six-week journey (it was supposed to be two) on rough seas – “I spent about a month of that throwing up,” he says, laughing – before he arrived at the base. Once there, working alongside scientists, medical professionals and technicians he says he felt a bit of an oddity, and admits that at first it wasn’t easy fitting in. “You are turning up in someone’s workplace and you are the only arty person for thousands of miles. Because contemporary art is always pushing at the boundaries, it is difficult to explain so you constantly have to justify your existence, but I think I won them over eventually.” Part of his brief was to give regular presentations to the team about the progress of the project. “There is no television there or anything, so I think I became their entertainment,” he says. “But also, I think they began to realise that I was actually working quite hard.”

It took Dobrowolski a month to build the sledge. “I spent four weeks in a shed in the Antarctic, not so different from the shed in my garden that I work in at home,” he says. “It had to be a lightweight flexible structure so it was very bendy but functional. Then I had to persuade the people working on the base to help me take it on a journey.” The experience of being in the Antarctic was a life-changing one for Dobrowolski and it is still very much part of his thinking and practice. “I’ve made a lot of work since I got back that has come out of that place,” he says. “And it wasn’t just the place it was the people too. There was a Russian scientist there who told me an amazing story – he had gone to look at a ice rift and he said ‘we could have driven all day and we still wouldn’t have reached the end of that crack; it is experiences such as these that make me realise my insignificance in the universe.’ Being there really made you realise there were so many layers to your insignificance in the world.”

Antarctica is at Sheffield Theatre Delicatessen on May 25.

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