Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Antarctica, Chelsea Theatre

Review: Antarctica, Chelsea Theatre

Pubished on Culture Wars, 29.11.2010

Perhaps the last place on earth you’d expect to have its own artist in residence is Antarctica. It is the coldest, windiest, driest and iciest of all the continents; a place so near inhospitable that even the notion of residence there – artist or otherwise – seems inconceivable. The average temperature rests at around -56°C. On it’s coast, wind speeds can hit 198 mph and, of course, for six months of the year, it sees no sunlight whatsoever.

Such obstacles, however, did not deter Chris Dobrowolski from applying for the position with the British Antarctic Survey and, in this chirpy performance lecture, he recounts his time there. Not only does he paint a vivid picture of a lifestyle that seems extraordinary to those of us perched just off the New Kings Road, he grapples with his own isolated position whilst there as the only person of an artistic bent on an entire continent.

Having previously explored unusual forms of transport (previous works include a plane constructed from newspaper and a hovercraft made of recycled bottles), the main thrust of Dobrowolski’s proposal was to build a functioning sledge from picture frames. In addition, Dobrowolski aimed to contrast everyday representations of Antarctic life – particularly assorted toys and knick-knacks – with the realities.

What emerges – apart from some of the most surreal holiday snaps you’ll ever see – is a multifaceted work that interrogates the nature and purpose of art at the same time as embracing the all-sorts it takes to make a world.

Take Dave, the plumber deposited on Bird Island for a two-year stint alone amongst thousands of aggressive, randy fur-seals and a handful of cannibalistic ducks. This is, as Dobrowolski tells it, an ecology in which corpses are consumed, the stench of which (death and excrement) hits you half a mile off-shore. On the plus side, there’s a well-stocked DVD library.

We meet trawlermen and scientists, HR managers and projector enthusiasts and yet – charmingly, optimistically and heartwarmingly – Dobrowolski brings a shared humanity to the fore. Our ability to connect and communicate, to share a joke even when faced with such astounding surroundings and hardships seems phenomenal.

Throughout, Dobrowolski positions himself as amicable failure, nearer Dave Gorman than Kim Noble, and in many ways Antarctica is a celebration of difficulties overcome and attempts failed. It embraces defeat, pointlessness and hapless co-incidence. Imagine schlepping approximately 10,000 miles to build a sledge out of picture frames, for example, only to discover that bored Antarctic engineers pass their time fashioning picture frames out of, you guessed it, dismantled sledges.

Photograph: Chris Dobrowolski

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