Chris Dobrowolski brings his show ‘Antarctica’ to Brighton Dome on 15 November. He tells us about his time as Artist in Residence with the British Antarctic Survey
How would you describe your art? I’m primarily an art maker. I paint sometimes as well but it’s usually in quite a crude way and an element of something else I have made- I’m not a virtuoso painter. In the last ten years more work has become more and more performance based and I spend a lot of time on stage in front of paying audiences talking about things I have done.
My work is not stand offish- ‘Cool and trendy’ actually makes me a bit angry but in the art world when you try to explain that your work is ‘accessible’ in this day and age, that always seems to equate to saying ‘your work is dumbed down, patronising and a bit shit.
What inspires you to do what you do? Landscape, vehicles, history but paradox is something that always seems to be a reoccurring theme. When I was an art student in Hull I collected the driftwood from the river bank of the river Humber to build a boat to escape from art college in.
What was life like in the Antarctic? It would take hours to cover everything but here are some points.
You’re rarely alone:– Although you are on one of the most isolated parts of the planet, due to safety regulations, people are rarely allowed to wander off on their own A lot of the time you share a room or tent and there is always company.
No money:– No shops, all the food either comes from the refectory or out of food boxes when you are out on a trip.
Not always as cold as you might think: The peninsular is surprisingly far north and I was there during Antarctic summer so there was twenty four hour sunshine. I did go further south and the temperature dropped to minus 27, which although it was quite cold for a tent you can get temperatures of minus 40 in certain places in Europe.
Other stuff: No children, (age restriction) no dogs (all removed in the early 1990s) weird ratio of about 1 female to 4 males (that really alters how things work socially) no crisps (there are some crisps but only come out on special occasions. They don’t offer much nutritional value compared to the amount of space they take up – a packet of crisps is mostly air) no fresh milk (all powdered) no grass or other vegetation, no fresh fruit in the winter, alcohol is regulated.
Lots of team work: Everyone helping out together. It reminds me of the image we have of the ‘blitz spirit’ in world war two. It’s also how I imagine Britain before Margaret Thatcher told us there was ‘no such thing as society’ and told us it was good to be selfish. Particularly ironic because the British Antarctic Survey have an interdependent relationship with the Falkland islands which was of course was her biggest vote winner at the time.
Would you go again? Yes, but only if I had a similar project to do while was out there, it’s not a holiday camp, you are in practice in someone’s work place. They like to see you working too not just swanning around admiring the majesty of the place. It was the place combined with the satisfaction I got from doing my art there that made it a unique experience.
Why did you choose that subject? Landscape is a recurring theme in my work, however my other motivator came from my sideline in management training.
I have a colleague I work with who does a ‘personal development workshop’ with business people called ‘Revaluating Success’. In this workshop I have to give a talk about my artwork. My colleague is a bit like a bullying older brother and he always introduces me like this:
“Hello this is Chris everyone, he’s an artist, he’s going to be the case study for today’s workshop ‘revaluating success’ because as well as being an artist he’s also, more importantly, a failure.”
I did this workshop so many times that I was able to pay the rent. I referred to myself as a ‘professional failure’. In Britain our overriding image of the Antarctic is captain Scott’s failed attempt to get the South Pole first. Added to that Shackleton also had a disastrous attempt to cross the Antarctic and of course there’s inevitable environmental disaster coming when entire thing melts. I see it as the place where landscape and disappointment meet. Essentially the Antarctic is an entire continent synonymous with losers and failure and I thought- ‘I’m your man!’
What’s the hardest thing about living in the Antartica? For me the hardest thing was justifying your existence there. Everyone you meet is there because of their clearly defined skill set – carpenter, cook, base commander, doctor, specialist scientist. I knew that by definition I was the only arty person for thousands of miles. A lot of the time it’s a bit like being on a building site at the end of world and, without actually saying it, you know everyone is thinking- “what’s the point of you”?
What’s the best thing about living in the Antarctic? I never had to worry about cooking or where the next meal was coming from. I met some great people that I’m still in contact with and I think I convinced a lot of them that I’m not a waste of space. Often as an artist you go through periods of not doing your artwork because you have to pay the bills etc and sometimes you find it hard to justify calling yourself an artist at all. I was in the Antarctic ‘because’ I was an artist and it was like having a holiday from that life of self doubt. Also, saying you are ‘in the Antarctic’ sounds incredibly grandiose and that never changes. Every morning I woke up out there I felt the same sense achievement just because I was there.
Is it what you expected? I’m probably still digesting and forming an opinion of my experience out there. It was a big thing.
What’s the most memorable thing that happened? Being attacked by fur seals- they are quite vicious. The wandering albatross nests- it was particularly special because it was up a mountain and a rare moment on my own. I could see for miles into the distance and really had a sense of how far away home was and 6 weeks of throwing up on the ship.
Listing info: Antarctica. Artist Chris Dobrowolski’s charming, warm and witty performance lecture about his time as artist in residence at the coldest place on Earth. 15 November 7.30pm. Brighton Dome Church Street BN1 1UE. £10 01273 709709 brightondome.org