Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life by Paris-based Julia de Cooker, born 1988, a French/Dutch photographer, educated at ECAL, the School of Art and Design in Lausanne, Switzerland, portrays an archipelago in the very north of mainland Europe.
According to Wikipedia, Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, was until 1925 known by its Dutch name Spitsbergen.
What do people do in such a remote place? How do they make a living? When, in 1596, the Dutch seafarer Willem Barentsz arrived at these islands, they became an international whaling base and also a point of departure for expeditions to the North Pole. And then there was also coal mining. Nowadays, the city of Longyearbyen, once known as a mining town, features hotels, restaurants and the University of Svalbard, founded in 1994, one of the most renowned places for the study of Arctic Science, I understand.
Julia de Cooker writes: “About two thousand people from more than forty countries live in the city. They take advantage of the special status of Svalbard, which allows them to live there without visas or working permits.” This is pretty exceptional indeed and I would have very much liked to discover as to why that is – yet the book doesn’t provide such information. I would also have appreciated to learn about the personal views of people living there, about their motivation to choose life in such a remote part of the planet etc.
Well, there are the pictures and they are testimony to something truly extraordinary. They visually complement Julia de Cookers interesting observations and deliberations. For instance, Svalbard is a place without tradition, there has never been an indigenuous community. Also, a quarter of the population is changing every year. Last but not least: “The combination of elements that have nothing to do with each other, or with the natural environment, is gripping. Is the presence of a limousine not surprising in a place where schools hold safety drills in case of a visit by a polar bear, where the priest moves about by helicopter, where houses so close to the North Pole have balconies?”
I’m fascinated by wide and empty spaces, especially the desert and the arctic. And, while I do know that there is quite some life out there in that nowhere, it is not what comes to mind when I look at these pictures of polar landscapes that show me a not exactly welcoming nature that can, obviously, do without human beings. Instead, I wonder why somebody would want to live in a place so far from what most people would term civilisation.
Julia de Cooker does not attempt to answer such questions but shows the strangeness that she must have felt when in Svalbard. She doesn’t question what she encountered, she documents it. And, in so doing lets the viewer wonder as much as she did when she arrived in this science fiction kind of place.
Life is truly stranger than fiction, and Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life once again proves it.
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2017
Also published on Medium.