Wind Vortex, 2007-08. Photograph documenting part of a double vortex pre-plotted on computer and transferred via GPS to a several-acre site near Lanzarotti Nunatac, Antarctica.

Ice in the Whirlwind: Chris Drury’s Desert Journey from Antarctica to Nevada

In early 2006, the British Antarctic Survey publicized its Artists and Writers residency. Chris Drury, who had been looking for a way to visit one of the Earth’s most remote and extreme places, applied and was selected as one of two artists sent south that year. Arriving at Rothera, he joined the scientists and technicians who make up the British base’s semi-permanent community: from here, he could fly deep into the continent, as far as the Ellsworth Mountains at 78 degrees south. It proved to be a valuable journey for Drury, who is closely identified with the ecological end of the art world, and, by extension, with the environmental movement.

Over the last few years, politicians, the public, the media, and the art world have become transfixed by global warming and its possible consequences. At the start of Drury’s residency, British politicians were speaking about the perils—and the economic opportunities—of a heating planet. The end of the world is always great copy for broadsheets so they too were full of it, merrily feeding a newly nervous public. Day after day, there were stories of the ice disappearing, and how in a few decades, the frozen North Pole would be no more. The South Pole was also in meltdown, with glacier ridges regularly falling into the surrounding sea, which the media dutifully reported with maps and diagrams of possible repercussions.

Drury’s residency was well timed in terms of public interest in the environment; he was also well placed at Sky Blu, a small tented base deep inland on the icecap, sharing his meals and conversation with glaciologists studying the ice sheets. Over the previous decade, Drury, who has been identified as one Britain’s most important Land artists, alongside Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and David Nash, had become increasingly preoccupied with the modern scientific outlook. His explorations of flow, chaos, and complexity in the natural world first surfaced in Edge Of Chaos (2000), which led to a series of works linking the land to the body (Heart of Stone, Rhythms of the Heart), some with a medical overlay. As he explains, “I felt this was something I was moving into, and then I did a garden that connected up to the heart. I’d also made the Edge of Chaos piece and started to read about complexity, so I was putting it together, making connections…At the same time, I worked on a residency at Eastbourne’s Conquest hospital (in Sussex, Southern England), which had the advantage of being a pure research project. So it does feel like it was a whole new chapter, a whole new turning.”