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Chair

Building a chair in nature, constructed from found elements, is a simple idea about accommodating human-kind in the natural world. Just as a primitive hut provides shelter, so too a chair provides a place to rest the body in a landscape that may not necessarily be relied upon to do so.

As a boy I spent my summers canoe-tripping in Northern Ontario. On many occasions we would stop our journey for a little while to rest and play. During such times I often made chairs. Our part of Ontario is located within the pre-Cambrian shield and is formed largely of granite. The chairs where made by stacking loose shards of rock to construct a seat, back and more often than not arms, as they were useful in stabilizing the back. Because the basic building blocks were both large and crude, the chairs tended to have throne-like qualities. Undoubtedly they were situated prominently, with a long view. The purpose of the chairs, to my young imagination, was to provide a place for the ‘hermit’ – the one who had escaped civilization and lived all around us, yet was never seen.

With this in mind, I determined to make a chair in the high Arctic as part of our Cape Farewell journey. Inspired by the hauntingly beautiful constructions made of snow by Peter Clegg and Anthony Gormley during the 2005 Cape Farewell Project, I went shopping in Toronto, prior to my departure, for the tools that I thought I would need; shovel, snow saw and ice saw.

It was a bit of a surprise therefore to arrive at Spitsbergen and discover that the beautiful snow that Peter and Anthony had worked with was available to them because their trip took place in February, whereas we were conducting our expedition at the end of the polar summer, throughout the last three weeks of September. Nature presented us with only a dusting of snow that rarely covered the enormous landscape of solid rock, loose rock, pebbles, and extremely hard glacial ice. So much for the concept of building a throne of carefully cut and assembled slabs of firm polar snow. How naïve I was.

However, after some time it became apparent that I might be able to carve a chair out of icebergs left on the beaches during low tide, adjacent to the glaciers. So, one morning, equipped with ice saw and a borrowed a hatchet from the ship I walked along the beach searching for suitable specimens, Simon was of course close by, rifle in hand, ever vigilant for polar bear.

Unlike the constructions of my childhood, which were made by adding bits of rock to build up a form resembling a chair, ice presented newer and different challenges. The three chairs constructed required cutting into the ice as found in order to create a place to sit. The resulting forms were not therefore instantly recognizable as chairs in the simple sense of the word, but were rather more sculptural. One of the chairs was like a little speed boat while another became a winged chariot, complete with seat, wings, tail and head.

The hat you see in the photos has another meaning. Also when I was a boy, I had a good friend whose father died accidentally when he fell through the ice while Nordic skiing. He was alone and close to shore, where the ice is thinnest, and with skis firmly fixed was unable to get out. With what may have been his final gesture, he threw his hat onto the dock to let his family know where he was.

The hat has become for me a symbol of loss and thin ice. It communicates both the loving selflessness of my old friend’s father’s gesture and the danger to us all of thinning ice; a sign of both love and death.

By late afternoon high tide had rolled in and the chairs carried out to sea, already beginning to melt beyond recognition. The hat is in my luggage awaiting another day.

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