Svalbard is a place that exists at the end of the earth, but inherent in it’s seductive landscape is a deep connection with the rest of the world.
Longyearbyen is an island settlement located in the Arctic Ocean within the Svalbard Archipelago. The remote Islands are positioned within the Arctic circle halfway between Norway and the Northpole, formerly known as Spitsbergen the territory was renamed Svalbard in 1920 originating from Old Norse which translates as either 'cold coast' or 'cold rim'. The town has a population of 2,200 inhabitants, making it the Northernmost city on earth. Originally Svalbard was considered ‘no mans land’ however, in the early 20th century Norway was granted sovereignty over the islands with a precondition that allowed all signatory nations unrestricted rights to natural resource exploitation. As a result of this entitlement, and for a long period thereafter, the establishment of foreign mining communities across the island made coal mining the dominant commercial industry supporting the economy of Svalbard.
In recent years there has been a reduction in coal mining operations. The Svalbard economy has shifted more toward tourism and scientific research. Mining on Svalbard has catalysed global environmental concern, bringing media attention to the controversial issue of resource extraction from one of the earths most fragile Eco-systems. Attitudes towards the value of the landscape are slowly shifting perspective. Longyearbyen is now home to one of the largest universities for ecological and scientific research and many international research stations are permanently based on the Svalbard, it’s geographical situation offering a unique insight into Anthropocene realities.
There has been an influx of tourism in the Arctic area particularly cruise tourism , the melting icebergs mean large vessels can now access previously untouched wilderness. A dark tourist market has emerged, providing tourists with a close up experience of the dissipating Arctic environment.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is situated on the Island. Widely termed ‘The Doomsday Vault’ , It contains over three million seed varieties from around the world, an insurance policy of sorts. The project affirms itself as a heroic venture that aims to conserve crop diversity and save humanity in the face of global adversity and provide options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth.
I arrived in Longyearbyen on Tuesday. The town, which is situated on the Svalbard archipelago is surrounded by mountains. A dense blanket of clouds enveloped the landscape, shrouding the mountain peaks and arousing a deep feeling of being hidden from the rest of the world. The Arctic landscape is beautiful in a strange and unique sense , in a sense where beauty and bleakness appear to collude. Abandoned decrepit mining structures are scattered throughout the rugged mountainscape, piles of coal look as though they are pouring from fissures in the mountain facade, where patches of earth are stained by a vivid red sediment. One could almost contemplate that these mountains bear wounds.
Further cultural remains are strewn across the landscape, each a protected relic serving as a fragment of a story. A visual story that in Svalbard describes the tight coupling between human activities and the natural environment, and demonstrates how humans have influenced the landscape through the exploitation of resources throughout history. During a momentary process of decay the weathered structures appear to blend into their natural surrounds. It is incomprehensible to think that the mountains will eventually reclaim their land and the fragments of human history will be completely consumed by the landscape.
I am Irish visual artist . In August 2017 I travelled to Svalbard to participate in an artist residency located in the Arctic circle. This research blog is a diary of my experiences within an Arctic landscape. All photographic images on this blog are © www.racheldoolin.com. This residency was funded by the Arts Council of Ireland Travel and Training Award and the CIT Valery Gleeson Development Bursary.