I have now been to the North Pole twice but there was no intense physical training, no sleds, no skiing, no dogs dragged me there, I did not get frost bitten nor even frost nipped. I simply boarded the powerful Yamal icebreaker and set up my studio in cabin 78 on the crews deck. Depending on the ice, from Murmansk in Russia it is about a six day sail to 90 degrees north. The Yamal cruised along at 20 knots but often much slower when it rammed through sea ice sometimes 4 metres thick. It was a bumpy and noisy ride through the heavy ice and pressure ridges, smooth in the polynyas or open waters and all too easy to get there I often thought.
In my bunk when I was half asleep the ships movement seemed to me like I was in a light aircraft flying through turbulence with the added bumps, groans, splits and cracking noises just outside the porthole. At times icebreaking sounded like thunder other times it was a soft grind with sea spray. It was continuously impressive and mesmerizing to watch and listen to especially out on the deck at the bow right beside the action.
To relax some evenings I would occasionally sit in the sauna and sweat in + 80 C. Just below me were two small KLT-40 nuclear reactors into which the Russian technicians shovelled 200 grams of uranium isotopes each day for our fuel (Actually the Yamal is refuelled only once every four years.) Outside the sauna was summer in the high Arctic, meaning plenty of fog, the temperature hovering around zero and the sun totally failing to set. Sleeping was a little erratic due to this total lack of night and the ships pounding actions required to split pack ice. Outside as well were Polar bears, seals, whales, walrus, and plenty of birdlife. The large red Yamal did scare off creatures but some were spotted. I sadly saw more polar bear footprints that bears.
As on most Polar voyages the crossing into Arctic or Antarctic water is celebrated with a traditional "Neptune Party". This usually involves costumes, music, games, food, drinks and general laughs. During one Polar party the sky was adorned with a dense and unusual white fog rainbow. I would see more during July as well as Fata morgana the strange Polar mirage. It was an amusing night especially when some Russian friends offered around a drink called "security mix" which was not unlike helicopter fuel flavoured with plums. For breakfast the next morning I had very strong coffee and caviar. This was a most successful cure for my fuzzy head.
The North Pole itself is a frozen and drifting collection of old and new ice. Beautiful for its remoteness and elegant icy formations. Some sunny hours were spent there contemplating this blue and white cool minimal world. Thick fog eventually shut down the view and southwards we headed. No other way was possible except upwards. Occasionally I did travel vertically off the ship in a tough Russian helicopter for some scenic flights and numerous landings on Franz Josef Land. Made up of 191 islands this archipelago is extremely rugged and fascinating. I enjoyed the trips to Buchta Tichaja on Hooker Island which is a Russian Arctic ghost town also seeing the odd spherical boulders on Champ Island and the gorgeous bright red and green moss beds that somehow survive foul weather most of their very long lives.
I made a lot of art onboard as this is what artists in residence should do. Two TRAVAILOGUE exhibitions were hung both consisting of about 80 small works produced on the Yamal as well as a selection of Antarctic works. These Polar art shows at 80 degrees north latitude were attended by most of the passengers, some of the crew, staff and captain Alexander Lembrik who has sailed or should I say rammed his way to the North Pole more than a dozen times.
I turned 44 with the help of some new friends in my cabin, German beer, an enormous tray of Swedish pickled herrings and Russian Vodka. The sea was calm as was my party. The staff all weary from a month onboard or going a little nutty with cabin fever. When I turned in I tried to remember how many ships I had been on. (Not many.) How many planes I had flown in. (Many.) I certainly cant remember all the towns I have visited but for some reason I always remember to carry a toothbrush and a Finnish hunting knife wherever I travel. My rucksack falls apart so I have to sew it together once again. I wonder if it will survive another lap of the globe? I wonder if I will?
I do get tired on the road but I have convinced myself that more travel will rejuvenate me, replenish my minimal needs and satiate my hungry eyes. Travel certainly does this again and again. Should I still be hunting the unfamiliar, chasing travail, and having wild affairs with landscapes? Is this normal behaviour? This birthday shouldn't I wish for a slice of stability as I blow out the candles on my cake? It seems not as I will disembark in Murmansk eat some cloudberries, fly to Helsinki eat some blueberries and reindeer sandwiches, visit the excellent Kiasma Contemporary Art Gallery then fly over Moscow, Kazakstan, Tadzikistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and finally land in Hong Kong for my PACKING exhibition.