Simon Faithfull


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44' © Simon Faithfull
How can climate change be portrayed without resorting to clichéd pictures of polar bears on ice floes? Politicians have posed in the Arctic, their faces frozen, and have held an underwater conference to highlight the urgent need for political action. Without using this repertoire of mainstream images as the starting point for his artistic setting-in-scene, the British artist Simon Faithfull has come up with a far less spectacular choreography that is subtle and gives food for thought. He shows moods and atmospheres at sea – that which is least tangible – and in so doing depicts a far-distant place, the Antarctic.

Videostill 44‘ © Simon Faithfull44' is the title of the 44-minute-long video that he shot on 44 days through the porthole of his cabin in the bow of the icebreaker RSS Ernest Shackleton. Although the video gives a fast-motion impression of the journey’s actual duration, the order in which the sequences are presented makes the viewing process slower – even for the viewer, the voyage takes some time.

The journey itself took place in 2006 when the artist was invited by the Arts Council in the UK to accompany, as a passenger, a British Antarctic Survey expedition to the Antarctic. The voyage commenced at the UK’s largest air force base and then continued via the British Falkland Islands to Ascension Island, a British overseas territory in the tropical South Atlantic. It was here that Faithfull boarded the icebreaker Shackleton which would take him and the scientists to the British research station Halley. His route, in other words, was one fraught with territorial interests – for despite the peaceful and scientific use of the continent agreed upon in the Antarctic Treaty, fears about climatic changes are accompanied by the discovery of new military and commercial opportunities.

Videostill 44‘ © Simon FaithfullEnough said about the journey’s context which, in the at times hypnotically colourful and at times drab images of nature, does not enter into the picture. Faithfull does not, however, seek to conceal the man-made and highly technicized setting which makes it possible to travel through this region of the earth in the first place: every shot is framed by a round porthole whose shape, offering just a cut-out view, is vaguely reminiscent of the telescopes used by the nineteenth century explorers of the Antarctic – one of whom was Ernest Shackleton. It serves as an interface with the adventurers of times gone by, and at the same time the signature of human presence. In this experience of time, “duration” as expressed by Bergson, the past is unravelled and the future anticipated.

The icebreaker, a monumental means of locomotion, characterizes the relationship between man and nature and the concept of technological feasibility. Faithfull consciously chose to shoot his film – quite unheroically – from the safety of his warm cabin rather than exposing himself to the harsh weather on deck, in order to communicate the artificial nature of his journey. He describes his experiences as artificial on account of the discrepancy between the English lifestyle on board and the inhospitable and bleak world outside. Faithfull compares his cabin to the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the interface to an unknown and different world.

Videostill 44‘ © Simon FaithfullJust as the weather station tracks the changes in the hole in the ozone layer and measures the thickness of ice in order to chart climate change, Faithfull documents the changes in colour in the sea and sky. The ship passes ice floes and icebergs, ice cliffs and uninhabited islands before the expedition finally reaches the science fiction-like Halley research station, where the ozone hole was discovered in 1985. On show, in other words, are images of the Antarctic which differ from those in the media and which completely do without any sensational events.

Viewed from an aeroplane, the surface of the earth can look a bit like a line drawing – lines for roads, motorways, rivers, canals. Faithfull’s camera, however, records the movements of the ship, making the swell of the ocean an almost physically tangible experience. When the sea is calm, the ocean and the sky sometimes appear similarly monotonous, well-illuminated and phosphorescent, just like Karl Schlögel enthusiastically describes the earth from the air.
Vera Tollmann
works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2009


    © Simon Faithfull
    Simon Faithfull (*1966 in Ipsden/ Great Britain) works as a freelance artist and art lecturer and lives in London and Berlin. From 1989 to 1996, he studied at Reading University and the Central St. Martins School of Art in London. Today he teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and dedicates himself to digital, video and network art, computer drawings, installations and mechanical sculptures based on various different topics. Simon Faithfull’s works have been displayed in numerous group and solo exhibitions including Frozen Time – Art from the Antarctic (Kiel/Germany 2009) or the 2nd Biennial of the End of the World (Ushuaia/Argentina 2009).