Last week after 18 months’ planning a delightful group of 14 students from Bowling Green University Ohio arrived at our studio in Wanaka for a three-day experiential workshop in environmental land art.It was one of the hottest days this year as we all gathered for a talk and video presentation about how Philippa and I came to work together around the world, sharing our art practice, publishing and exhibiting our many land art projects that explore the transition to a regenerative model of progress based on the cyclical way nature works.
The students were aged between 19 and 22 and had chosen this trip to New Zealand because they wanted to learn about our culture and environment – particularly our approach to ecological and social sustainability. They had spent days on environmental conservation projects with scientists in the mountains beforehand. They expressed intense interest in our work and good discussions flowed.
Early next day we gathered for a short walk to a beautiful spring and wetland where they set about creating their own environmental sculptures from natural materials which they photographed.
The variety of materials and forms they chose was diverse. Each of them expressed their ideas and point of view creating a wide range of ephemeral sculptures, photographs and video.
Some of the group worked with us to finish a piece made from raupo stems and flax
thread which we floated on the lake. We all hiked up above the wetland to photograph the sculpture floating below.
Later a rain shower put an end to the proceedings but Philippa and I returned later to complete two versions of the work rapidly and capture photographs in golden light just before the sun dropped behind the mountains.
We all met at the wetland the following day to witness any changes to the sculptures and to photograph them in morning sunlight. The students were all pleased and happy with what they had achieved and experienced, one was so keen on her piece she carried it off to take home to America.
It snowed heavily for the last two days when we were up at the Chalet on Albert Burn Saddle. The evening before we were due to be picked up by Charlie Ewing in his helicopter I realised that the new snow was an opportunity to make one last sculpture. Because the fresh snow was very sticky and in the blizzard anything I made was going to freeze overnight I chanced building a large difficult form that would otherwise have collapsed. Philippa also suggested I utilise one of the three sculptures in an earlier work that had frozen into ice and could support my new construction of interlinked circles that would become “Interdependence”.
A few hours of digging and applying the new soft snow and I had the basis of three rings interconnected like chain links. Their final shaping took place as it became darker and colder after sunset.
The storm abated during the night and a full moon traversed the sky towards Mount Aspiring. At dawn the scene was perfect for photography which I completed as the helicopter arrived to whisk us back to the green of the lowlands and our home in Wanaka where we began to return to our regular life after an extremely memorable and inspiring ten days immersed in an alpine wilderness.
Huge thanks to Martyn and Louise Myer, the staff of Whare Kea Lodge and Chalet, Chef James, Guide Laetitia and helicopter pilots James and Charlie.
We look forward to returning when the snow has gone for a different experience making further works for The Watershed Project.
From the moment we stepped ashore at the head of Pangnirtung Fiord in Baffin Island in Canada’s far north territory of Nunavut and the sound of the boat dissolved among the waterfalls we felt alone in an ancient primal land controlled completely by the forces of nature. Loaded with more than we could carry we were forced to repeat each day’s journey two more times for the first four days in order to ferry loads.This way we experienced the landscape under different conditions as the weather changed constantly and unexpectedly from sunshine to gale force winds and rain. Rivers rose and fell within hours making crossings dangerous, and avalanches of rock poured down thousand meter rock walls. Camping each night meant finding a huge rock to shelter us and flat ground that was safe from flood. Polar bear safety required stashing food and fuel well away from our camp.
The sheer scale of the Weasel Valley is hard to comprehend with granite walls that tower above us for a thousand metres capped by glaciers hundreds of metres thick. The valley floor has no trees, the tallest shrub being a low growing Arctic willow. When the ice and snow melts in the brief summer months the exposed tundra is covered with flowering plants, Arctic geese fly in formation overhead and eider ducks flock at the river’s edge. The remains of caribou antlers and tracks of other creatures show us that there is life here but we saw little except a lone peregrine falcon.
One of the most inspiring peaks is Thor named after the god of thunder by the Inuit people who have inhabited Baffin Island for 4000 years. The overhanging west face is one of the tallest and home to one of the hardest climbs in the world. The peak’s shape is so dramatic we wanted to make The Fine Line Sculpture in its shadow. This is a land dominated by ice so we were excited to find that some of the winter ice still remained in the coldest part of the valley shaded by the walls.
Although the ice was very thick it was melting at the edges where the rocks absorbed sunlight. Here it was possible to cut off and shape a piece about 1.5m across using our ice axes and with much effort, especially from Len, move it to a suitable site on the ice sheet. We had little time to get the shape right before the sun dipped behind the giant peak of Odin to the west. Since the sun never actually sets here above the arctic circle in summer its golden light touched the high peaks for some time giving me the opportunity to photograph and film the glorious spectacle.
Some days later we had made our way to Summit Lake, climbed up onto the Caribou Glacier and camped on ice beneath the mighty flat topped towers of Mt Asgard. A day or two of clear weather meant this was a highlight of the expedition and a chance to experience the high Arctic terrain I had dreamt of for so long.
The return journey with our heavy loads was punctuated by severe storms, difficult river crossings and a transformed landscape.
The friendly Inuit family with whom we stayed in Pangnirtung told us that the rainfall is the worst for decades and that the annual winter ice festival last Christmas was the first they have held using boats because there was no ice on the fiord.
Our flight out was cancelled and we hitched a ride on a rescue helicopter returning to base after evacuating those in the mountains affected by the severe weather and a polar bear sighting. Flying low across the vast Arctic wilderness of Baffin Island for hours we saw no human habitation only endless rock and tundra interspersed with lakes and patches of remnant ice, as wild as any place can be.