WP 13 – Observations from a Polar Expedition

From May 7 to June 5, 2023, I travelled across the Arctic Ocean. As the artist aboard the icebreaker Oden (Work Package 13), I was part of an expedition invited by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat. The watercolor diaries became a way to understand a new place and its “inhabitants.” Ultimately, four watercolor diaries stand testament, capturing the essence of life abord the Oden during ARTofMELT 2023.

May 7 th 2023

I board the Oden off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, in the company of 38 researchers. Alongside the crew and staff from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, we are 74 people on board. In the night towards May 9, we weigh anchor and depart from Adventfjorden, heading towards the 82nd parallel.

Sunday May 7, 2023: Richard and the small boat to Oden

May 16th-17th, 2023

On Tuesday, May 16, at 9 in the morning, we dock at a large ice floe. Throughout the day, groups of researchers have ventured out, initiating their ice stations. It looks peculiar when they move – like a procession, they walk in line, with a polar bear guard at the front and one at the rear. A capture convoy, a moon landing, a trek across a desert where the sand lies like compact clay tiles, or an excursion onto an ice floe. All descriptions seem fitting.

Wednesday May 17, 2023: Gun loaded

The following evening, I am granted permission, and with an armed escort, I take a walk across the ice. Polar Coordinator Åsa asks if I am ready for a longer stroll, and I unequivocally respond yes. I take a step out onto the ice, and I radio back to Oden: “Ice control, ice control, number 52 on ice.” The definition of a long walk turns out to be a kilometer. But we take our time, weaving a loop that passes by all the research stations. A one-kilometer walk takes us two and a half hours. By 9:00 PM, we are back at the gangway. However, where we are, the sun never sets.

Wednesday May 17, 2023: Artist on ice

May 19th, 2023

Two days later, I join researcher Penny and radio the bridge again: “Ice control, ice control, number 52 on ice.” We walk over to the nearest corner of the floe, and Penny gets to work. She drills. It’s heavy labor. Eventually, she extracts an ice core as long as the ice is thick, 180 centimeters. I assist in taking notes. Further out in the water, large ice blocks rise. There’s something special about the blue color. From the almost black sea, the scale moves all the way to a dazzling whiteness. The blue is something entirely different. The blueness of time, evident in toppled ice blocks, in ice floes compressed into chains of difficult terrain to navigate. I read that light passing through dense ice travels much farther than just a straight path to the eye. The crystals in the ice bounce off and hit other crystals, and along the way, the red spectrum is absorbed. What remains is blue. The blueness of time, the Arctic ice’s blue. Something entirely different.

Friday May 19, 2023: Ice core drilling

Later that evening, a message comes through Oden’s loudspeaker system. A polar bear is approaching. I go out to the helicopter pad and see the bear walking in our footsteps. It nibbles at our red flags. It dips its nose into the large hole that has been drilled. When the polar bear shows a bit too curious a nature, when the researchers’ equipment is dissected, Oden’s powerful horn roars.

Friday May 19, 2023: Polar bear visit

May 17th 2023

It’s Saturday in the middle of the expedition. With a Midsummer buffet for lunch and a three-course fine dinner in the evening. Perhaps that’s why it’s not the end of the world if the day passes with a kind of festive enjoyment. Over coffee, I take a dozy nap on the helicopter pad with Valteri, Rikard, and Magnus. Even the fire brigade, waiting for Sven’s helicopter landing, spends the time gap in rest mode. In full gear, lying on the helicopter pad, I can’t resist the temptation to capture their anticipation.

Saturday May 27, 2023: Waiting for Sven

Everything is a bit slower today. But Oden is moving briskly. Anais wants to dance after the feast. I think it sounds like a brilliant idea. We start at the very top of Oden, with a view in all directions. Around 8:00 PM, we suddenly see Spitsbergen towering up. We are back at Svalbard. Now we are going to find a new route northward. We go down to the helicopter pad where the sun warms, and together with Valteri, we dance to Finnish tunes and techno. We dance for over two hours. Deeply warm but superficially cooled, we end the day in the sauna.

Saturday May 27, 2023: Dancing on helicopter pad
Thursday June 1, 2023: Fredrik and the sawing machine
Friday June 2, 2023: Ice control

June 5th, 2023

Monday, June 5, is a day marked by sleep deprivation. I wake up just before 2:00 AM to Oden’s muffled but powerful horn. She roars repeatedly. Later, the bangs from signal shots follow. I count at least five shots. Doors open and slam shut, footsteps on stairs. Contemplate whether to get up but choose to sleep on. Around 5:00 AM, I am awakened again by Oden’s horn. More signal shots are fired. I try to sleep as much as I can. At breakfast, the talk begins. During the first visit, the polar bear inspected the various ice stations. It lifted the planks at Philip’s ice hole, nibbled on the structure holding the ROV cables. During the second visit, it was the buoy that suffered – screwed into the ice floe and covered in snow, the bear knew there was something exciting to dig up.

At 4:00 PM, Oden is moving. The wind has shifted, and according to the wish of the researcher Paul, the bow should always face the wind. Next to us, a curious polar bear mother walks with her cub. When we get too far away, the bear family starts to walk back toward our unguarded ice floe. From a distance, we see how the weather mast and Philip’s ROV station are inspected. However, it’s the instrument of the doctoral student Theresa that suffers the most. It’s an instrument that measures aerosols, with parts that move and emit buzzing sounds every 50 seconds. The female, finding the construction and sound intriguing, balances on a metal box. The box tips over, and the entire structure is dragged along. Also, some wooden signs marking the different stations are torn down, and the little cub plays with the colorful piece of a buoy. Things also go poorly for Chief Engineer Johan’s snowmobiles. Both seats bear traces of the bear’s hefty paws. But it’s cool, though, to bring back snowmobiles marked by polar bears to Jämtland.

Tuesday June 6 2023: Daniel fixing some electrical thing

Wednesday June 7th 2023

Day of the white light, around minus three degrees. The fog comes and goes. Chief Officer Mats checks in during his safety round, and we continue the school on making splices – now a different variant mostly used to create hand-friendly rope endings.

At 4:00 PM, I peek into the galley and get a glimpse into Tina and Eva’s daily life on board Oden. Chef Tina is making pancakes on the stove. It’s a bunch to fry when 74 stomachs need to be filled. Thursday’s pancakes, therefore, begin on Wednesday. And then it hits me, this will be our last pancake Thursday.

Wednesday June 7 2023: Preparing for the last pancake dinner
Friday June 9 2023: Playing Dominon

June 10th, 2023

On Saturday, June 10, the temperature has risen above zero. We are approaching the end of the expedition, and the warmth we’ve been waiting for has arrived. However, the heat brings certain obstacles. Constant fog throughout the day. Polar bears suddenly appearing. One wasn’t noticed until it was standing and licking the towline. The one that comes later takes a swim between the ice floes. Johan’s snowmobiles are tinkered with more than once. The horn has no effect, nor do the signal shots. No one is allowed on the ice all day. But Paul Z is happy, “Fog, still fog,” he cheerfully shouts as he passes me on deck four, where we both have our work containers. If I had the skills of a cartoonist, I would create a series about Paul, his team, and all their inventions. Three container roofs are filled with gadgets resembling the eccentric scientist’s homemade contraptions, with instruments constructed from plastic funnels, peculiar round metal bowls, vacuum cleaner hoses, and foil-wrapped tubes. It’s magical nonetheless, I think, as he demonstrates a device that sucks in clouds. I envision the comic strip: Paul standing by his machine, sucking in all the fog so that researchers can go out on the ice. But it doesn’t quite work that way.

In the afternoon, I get to participate as the crew receives a medical training session from Doctor Agneta and Nurse Elisabeth. We are learning how to respond in case of a massive bleeding incident. We have a practical exercise where we apply a tourniquet to restrict blood flow. I tighten it around Engineer Christoffer’s arm. Christoffer tightens it around Chief Engineer Johan’s thigh.

Saturday June 10 2023: Nurse E Frost and the tourniquet
Saturday June 10 2023: Practicing stopping a massive bleed

June 13th-14th, 2023

Around noon on Tuesday, June 13, we arrive at Svalbard. However, our pilot is scheduled for tomorrow evening, so we must settle for a view of the islands. The ping pong final is in full swing. Many have by now connected to the world outside, but I wait a bit longer. The reality outside the expedition bubble will have to wait another day.

The next day is a day of limbo for many. A day of waiting. I have a busy schedule myself. I am going to paint the newly installed starting air compressor. It becomes a fierce machine monster accompanied by some kind of fish salamander. When Chief Engineer Johan stops by, he insists that I must sign the artwork. After the signature is in place, he takes me on a tour of the machines, all in full operation. I never say no to a tour. This one is the third. There’s always something new to discover.

Wednesday June 14 2023: Monster machine
Wednesday June 14 2023: Richard building a tool

At 7:20 PM, the pilot is nearby, and I join First Officer Mats on Monkey Island, where he demonstrates how the flag should be hoisted. It should have the right knots, and the flag should be handed over in a specific manner, with an additional knot around the flag so that it is hoisted rolled up. Then, when it is up there, it is unrolled with a twitch. Meanwhile, the pilot comes alongside Oden. It looks so easy, how the boat approaches, closely. Both boats in motion as a man step on board, and then the yellow pilot boat swiftly departs. The pilot joins us on the bridge. Now, we are heading into Longyearbyen. At 8:30 PM, Oden’s anchor is lowered. The end of the expedition is now just one night away.

Wednesday June 14 2023: hoisting a flag
Wednesday June 14 2023: A captain, a Pilot and a First Officer

What have I done during these forty days? Firstly, I’ve been a part of Oden with all that it entails. I’ve also drawn, written, read, and contemplated. Many believe that the worlds of art and science are separate, but fundamentally, they converge in the appreciation of the uncertain, in the world-expanding sensation that arises when something is taking shape. Curiosity and boundary-crossing thinking reveal the world from unexpected perspectives. Through imagination and wonder, something else can begin to emerge – a possible future, a previously unknown past, a parallel present. Yet, art chooses to go its own way. Perhaps because art is not required to provide answers. There are no pressures for guiding theses or presenting conclusions. Art can remain with the questions and possibilities. And the artist on board Oden, even though she was part of the Polar Research Secretariat’s working group, was always free to do as she pleased.

External links:
– There was the possibility to send a limited number of emails from the Oden, and my emails were sent to the Polar Research Secretariat, they then published them continuously on their website.
– An interview of my experiences as the artist onboard Oden, published at the Polar Research Secretariat website.
– A text about my experiences as the SPRS artist, published on Volym.

Oden as seen from the fist ice floe

Oden seen from the first ice floe.

My studio at Oden

My work space at the 4th deck.

Newly broken ice

Newly broken ice.

Scientist entering the first ice floe

Scientist entering the first ice floe, with polar bear guards at the head and end of the line.

Polar bear family

A polar bear family stopping by!

  • October 22nd, 2023