A view from Wombat

I am unsure how many temporary art studios I have set up over the past 25 years but it must be well over 100 scattered across 50 countries. I recall a tent in Greenland, a bus in the Sahara Desert, a cabin on a nuclear icebreaker at the North Pole, formal artist residencies in Paris, Melbourne, Sydney and Taipei, and a BBQ room in Argentina. There was a five star hotel in Beijing, a no-star hotel in Burkina Fasso, a squat in Amsterdam, apartments in Hong Kong, Yangon and Phnom Penh, a shed in Broome, a shack in Tonga and a donga by the heli-pad at Davis station over the summer of 2002–03 — where I worked as the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow. Now I am back in Antarctica, again as the Arts Fellow, but this time to winter-over.

If you remove the primary and serious scientific data collecting element from Antarctic pursuits, then wintering on an Antarctic station could be seen as some form of chilly Big Brother experiment (thankfully without the youthful wannabes and live broadcasts of high spirited antics). But Antarctica is a long way from TV Land and certainly a lot more real than reality TV.

Mawson station seems like home now after two months of living here. A very strange form of home, but it is comfortable, friendly, safe and stunning. The 15 capable expeditioners I share the station with are all busy keeping things in order and preparing for the coming winter months. As the Arts Fellow it is my job to make art on station and that’s how I spend eight hours each day. The studio I have set up is in a science building called Wombat and out the window is a superb view of Horseshoe Harbour and West Arm. Some days there is a large view of zero; lashings of nothing. But even then (or perhaps especially then) I am stimulated by the intensity of where I am, as is everyone here on station.

I believe the last Australian artist to winter on this continent was Mr Frank Hurley, in 1915, whose photographic works from that expedition are now stamped securely into the heroic era of Antarctic culture. Iconic images of human ‘Endurance'. I am in another century but equally awestruck by this ‘Home of the Blizzard'.

It is a huge undertaking to plant anyone here for an extended period of time, as anyone who has had dealings with Antarctica will know. From my perspective it is a huge task to visually turn this fuzzy space into a place. I am not here to simply represent and copy what the millions of photographic images of Antarctica do so well. I want to frame the beauty and chaos in another way. I currently collect, juggle, meld and ponder in order to interpret what I glean from this outlandish land of ice into art. It is a tricky job indeed.

This inhuman terrain strangely has the ability to seduce many folk that make it here. Environmental psychologists may reason that Antarctica causes a ‘diminutive effect’ on us; meaning that we are belittled but invigorated by the sublime scale of all that white stuff outside. Others might say it is just ‘bloody amazing'.

Antarctica is basically formed by a lack of warmth and a lack of humans. This is what made my desire to winter-over necessary in order for me to get a handle on this southern realm of our planet.

My plan for the year in Wombat is to paint, sew, draw, write, photograph and film my way through superlatives and the mixture of experiences, both dark and light, that I shall encounter at Mawson station. It’s ‘all good’ as they say, and if my ideas don’t get blasted away in the katabatic winds, I will return to Australia late this year to commence exhibiting a great deal of Antarctic visual culture in galleries across Australia and overseas.

View some of Stephen’s artwork.


Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow, 2009