Where the wild things are: Two British artists head to Alaska's frozen north on the trail of the polar bear

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine