Nestled in the vast tundra of Alaska's North Slope, the island of Kaktovik is hard to spot on a map. A remote region, surrounded by sea ice, it is part of a 19.6 million-acre area of Arctic wildlife reserve, and boasts a fierce natural environment. In winter, temperatures regularly drop to minus 20 degrees, and strong winds hurtle across the sprawling, snow-white plains – making this the ideal natural habitat for some of the 25,000 polar bears still living in the wild today, as well as caribou, Arctic fox and more than 125 species of bird.
Kaktovik is also home to some 250 Inupiat people, who, in the past few years, have felt the impact of climate change first-hand: permafrosts melting, glaciers receding and sea ice starting to disappear – signs of the complex Arctic eco-system facing a fast-paced deterioration. And now, the long-term survival of those living in this isolated settlement is in question. The rich oil deposits embedded in Alaska's North Slope have already drawn a number of oil companies to the land here, and to the water that surrounds it. The US federal government has opened up 9.1 million acres of the Beaufort Sea for oil and gas exploration, and now there are proposals for a new site off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the doorstep of Kaktovic, where traditional subsistence hunting – particularly for whale and caribou – is a vital source of food. Drilling in this water could affect the migratory patterns of some 10,000 bowhead and 30,000 beluga whales that pass along this coast every year, in turn depriving the Inupiats of this crucial resource.
The largely unspoken plight of the people and animals of this fragile region has now become the subject of a series of work by the respected British artists known simply as Olly & Suzi. Since meeting at St Martins art college in 1987, the pair have travelled extensively, tracing, painting and sketching animals in the wild, and exhibiting their pictures in a bid to highlight the various man-made threats their subjects face. Most famously, in 1997, they travelled to South Africa to study the Great White shark, painting the animals underwater, then photographing the creatures actually taking a bite out of one of their paintings. This was, they explained, an attempt to highlight the Great White's endangered status, at the hands of human predators. While Olly & Suzi have roamed around the globe on their mission "to record the fragile equilibrium between man and nature", they have mainly gravitated towards two key environments in recent years: Africa and the Arctic. It is the beauty and diversity of the Arctic, they say, which makes it so endlessly fascinating.
Today, back in their London studio, Olly & Suzi are reflecting on a recent trip to Kaktovik. This was their twentieth Arctic expedition and their fifth journey to Alaska. They admit that regular long-haul plane journeys to the Arctic – from Heathrow to Seattle, Seattle to Fairbanks, Fairbanks to Kaktovik, their plane getting smaller and smaller on each leg of the journey – is somewhat at odds with their fundamental message. But they argue that in bringing back their work to the UK, they might just open up a dialogue on global warming which, in the long term, would justify an excessive carbon footprint.
This recent trip to Kaktovik was in fact Olly & Suzi's second journey to the community. In 2004, they spent time here tracking and painting caribou; this time, they planned to trace the polar bear. These iconic creatures, Suzi says, can be seen as symbols of the impact of climate change around the world: "The image of the polar bear represents all of the many creatures on the front line, whose lives are under threat," she explains. In order to maximise their contact with these creatures, the artists coincided their trip with an ancient Inupiat hunting ritual. Once a year, villagers in Kaktovik gather to feast on the meat of a bowhead whale killed by local hunters, before leaving the carcass on a spit of land for the bears. The idea was that with this attraction, the bears would be out in force by the time the artists arrived in mid-October. But, due to an abnormal shortfall in summer snow, the ice separating the bears from their usual dwelling point and the land on which the carcass lay, had turned to water, and it was a few days before the bears were in the right position for the pair to study. "You can't prepare for anything out there," Suzy says.
Once they finally arrived, accompanied by their armed Inupiat guide, Robert Thompson, a hunter and a native conservationist, the artists studied and drew the animals from a "safe" distance of between 10 and 30 yards. "We'd head out on a small boat to our vantage point every morning before sunrise, carrying a camera, a sketch book and binoculars," Olly says. "The weather would be terrible, with sideways sleet, and our parkas would be hanging from us like wet duvets, but once we caught sight of those creatures, we just forgot all about it. In the wild, they aren't the white Glacier Mint bears you see in the adverts; they are huge, magnificent greyish-yellow creatures. Just being near them is immensely humbling."
"There are so many stories, so many things going on in the world that people in Britain never hear about," says Suzi, pointing towards a series of simple pencil drawings. "Olly and I don't claim to have any answers about halting or reversing the effect of climate change," she admits. "We only hope that by creating these pictures, these raw honest representations of a moment in time, that we will trigger a thought in people's minds – that they might start a discussion which could lead to some answers."
For more information on the artists' work, visit ollysuzi.com. You can view the images from Olly & Suzi's Kaktovik trip at Eleven gallery's Christmas Salon, London SW1, until 10 January 2010; see elevenfineart.com for further details