Looking at someone’s holiday pictures will never be the same again. Actually, Chris Dobrowolski’s show runs deeper than a brief sojourn through amusing brand names, sunsets and blurred balcony views. “‘Pointing at pictures with a stick’ is what I’ve called it,” he chortles. With all the glibness of someone who’s just popped to the shops, he’s self-effacingly recounting his three and half month stint in a genuinely hostile environment. Antarctica is the offbeat and heart-warming documentation of his intrepid journey to reassess the very nature of art.
Engaged by the British Antarctic Survey to be their visiting artist in residence, he travelled south to experiment creatively – whilst also surviving in a place where humans aren’t designed to go. “As an artist your job is to look, experience, get your sketchbook out and take photographs… While everyone around you had a proper job. Ultimately they’re trying to save the planet and you’re watching them do it.” From relentless winds and a surprising lack of moisture to crippling seasickness and encounters with super-horny bull seals, his every day presented a range of unique challenges.
This journey to the end of the Earth began, as you’d expect, with a series of management training courses. Helping at personal development schemes his friend ran, Dobrowolski would come in to talk about his art. “I’d be introduced with: ‘This is Chris, he’s going to be the case study for today’s workshop: re-evaluating success – thinking differently and creatively. This is an artist, but more importantly he’s a failure!’ I did it so often I made the rent on my bedsit, so ended up saying I was a professional failure…” So this newfound job title formed the core of his application for the BAS project. “It’s famous for all these disastrous explorers and impending environmental doom. This entire landscape is synonymous with losers and failure, so I thought ‘I’M THE MAN!’ It’s difficult to make that sound positive in 2,000 words, but I had a go…” An institution of the Natural Environment Research Council, BAS carries out scientific studies in the Polar Regions, which seeks to advance understanding of our impact on the planet. As part of a ten-year programme, artists were sent down to the southern continent every year to raise awareness of the environmental work. “You go there in the summer, so there’s 24-hour sunlight. The coldest I was in was -27°, but you can get colder in Europe. It was pretty cold in a tent though.” The unusualness of his situation was further demonstrated while working at Sky-Blu, a logistics base in an area of blue ice. He encountered a ‘low contrast day’, where the sky and landscape were near indistinguishable, describing it alike to “walking around inside a giant ping-pong ball”. Conditions like this showed how a sense of reality can be twisted on the frozen continent.
While the region is one of the most isolated places on Earth, he was rarely left alone. Mainly this was for safety reasons. “I can count on one hand the number of times I was on my own. Even when flying south, one of the reasons you’re on the plane is to keep the pilot company.” He’d never owned a computer before the trip so bizarrely found himself more in contact with the world at large when he was there. But perpetually he felt a need to justify his existence with the scientists, doctors and engineers working alongside him. “Everyone has clear defined roles. You start thinking ‘What does an artist do?’ quite often. A lot of very successful artists are quite good at turning up in an art gallery and being enigmatic. There, you’re with people for 24 hours a day, and they ask some very searching questions. But I won them over in the end.”
Already establishing a reputation for crafting sculptures from planes, trains and cars, for this project south he took plastic penguins, toy soldiers in winter apparel and a 12-foot sledge built out of gold picture frames. He found Antarctic’s remoteness had a way of authenticating these most banal of objects. “When they give you all the kit, they give you socks and pants as well. Somebody told me the pants end up on eBay sometimes as ‘genuine Antarctic kit’. So I took pretend Antarctic things to the real Antarctic and photographed them. So they came back as ‘real pretend Antarctic objects.’”
He’d photograph these items against the rolling vastness of the snow-covered continent, developing ideas for building dioramas when he eventually returned home. Joyously, Dobrowolski started playing with the raw validity of art, bending the notions of what makes something real.
So now Dobrowolski has compressed all of his experiences, from the difficult to the strange, into a theatre show displaying the highs and lows of a land synonymous with failure. Full of self-effacing geniality, it uses the challenges he faced to re-establish how we look at failure, art and the creative process. Despite his achievements and epic journey, he remains modest about these exploits. “Somebody called it ‘like being shown someone’s holiday pictures, but you don’t want them to stop.’ I guess starting with the premise you’re a failure might also be a bit understated,” he laughs.
Chris Dobrowolski’s Antarctica comes to the Brighton Dome Founders Room on Tues 15 Nov.