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Art + Environment: True North – The story behind the image

Cracked Iceberg reflected in the sea
True North. From the series Svalbard, 2005-10. © Gautier Deblonde. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022.

In 2006, photographer Gautier Deblonde joined a collective of artists and writers on a trip to Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The trip was organised by Cape Farewell, and aimed to bring creative voices together to highlight the growing climate emergency. 

The images created on this trip launched a new body of work True North, an ongoing series that Deblonde has developed with multiple return trips to the island since, in which he is exploring the changing landscape, the melting glaciers and collaborating with climate scientists who live and work in the area.

DACS selected one of these striking images to lead our Art + Environment series. Here Gautier shares the story behind the project.

"Thanks to a commission, I made my first trip to Svalbard in 2005. I barely knew its name and I certainly would have struggled to put the archipelago on the map, halfway between the North Cape and the North Pole.

It was discovered in July 1596 by the Dutch explorer William Barents who was looking for a northern route to China. He thought that these islands belonged to Greenland and named them Spitsbergen (pointed mountains). Since 1920, their name is Svalbard (Cold Coast), when the area came under the sovereignty of Norway.

Travelling to a different continent gives us a change of scenery, but going to Svalbard is a change of universe.

We lose our sense of time and place. It is bright for six months and the night is sixteen weeks long.

The light is probably what makes Svalbard. It can be extremely clear and crisp, but can quickly become, diffused, soft, imprecise and dark. It plays with the monochromatic landscapes and offers a limited spectrum of colour but so rich. From one photograph to another, the light changes and heightens the impression that everything is still to start. It is like a call, I went back five times.

Barentsburg was my third destination, established in 1932; it is the last Russian settlement in the Arctic. I wanted to stay there so I booked a room in the only hotel for 15 days. It proves to be a small town, few streets and a mine, which is grim, run down and melancholic. The snow is covered with coal dust and you hardly see anyone outside. Six hundred people from Russia and the Ukraine work there on two-year contracts: 400 men and 200 women. Last summer, because of the limited amount of coal left, half of the population was asked to leave and the only school was closed. Barenstburg might live its last days.

I went to Pyramiden for few days, a Russian mine closed since 1998. You don’t really notice it at first but there is no activity. Its buildings still stand, deserted, it feels like a film set. You come across the swimming pool, the sports club, the cinemas, and everything has been left behind. In the library all the books are on the shelves. In the indoor basketball court the balls have been left on the floor. We go to the cinema, to the projection room, and all the films are still stacked there. It feels as if you can hear the people who lived there – just like when you’re in a room where a party has just finished, and there’s a lingering sense of the voices and the music. Everything seems as if it is waiting to be used. It’s all on the verge of happening, you would just have to put the heater on and life would start again.

Ny-Alesund was my last destination, a disused coal-mining village. 30 scientists in the winter and up to a hundred in the summer work there. They are there to calculate, to measure the climate and atmospheric change, studying the wildlife, the flora and the marine life. The results are not always good.

Like Barenstburg, Svalbard might be living its last days. Its lands so hard and so fragile are victims of the global warming, they change inexorably. The American novelist Gretel Ehrlich calls them “the vanishing landscapes”."

Find out more

You can view more of the True North series on Artimage.

Gautier will be sharing more about his experiences creating this work, and plans for the future of the project in our event Choosing Sustainability on Wednesday 25 May 2022.

The event is part of our Art + Environment series which explores the impact of climate instability on the arts and artists, looking at how the visual arts sector is working towards more sustainable practices and a decarbonised future.

Find out more about the series