Through the Pack Ice

Intrigued by the way in which the Nova Zembla prints and books were transformed through their time locked for centuries in the ice, I decided to make the journey into the pack ice of the Arctic. As a result, the objects themselves have taken on new meanings and associations for me.

Retracing part of the route that Barents and his crew made to Nova Zembla, was an extraordinary experience – extraordinary to travel hundreds of miles without seeing any hint of human existence, past or present. And to see the light changing constantly and to hear the ice gently cracking, groaning or tinkling like thousands of tiny crystals striking one another. It is an extreme and humbling place.

I spent much of the voyage photographing and filming our route through the ice. It felt that the ice sea had close visual analogy to the surface of the compacted prints and books. The video that I took of the shifting ice pack reflected in a replica Claude Glass, is reminiscent of the fragmented prints carried so many years before on the same route through the sea.

A small selection of the photographs that I took:













Some stills from the video footage of the ice pack reflected in the oval, black mirror: 




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Works in Progress – On, In, and Through the Pages

A bespoke paper of pure hemp has now been made in the Berlin workshop of Gangolf Ulbricht for the new series of artist’s books that I am working on. After discussions with Gangolf in both Amsterdam and Berlin, the paper was created in response to that of the Nova Zembla prints.

The next stage was for me to start to consider ways in which this paper might be used as a material in order to explore the initial “ground” for the pages of the books. A 15th century handwritten navigational guide was found amongst the frozen objects on Nova Zembla – a guide that was to be of no use to navigate a passage through the ice and so was left behind in the Saved House; yet another example of things transient both in material and conceptual terms.

After photographing the pages of this journal and laboriously “cleaning” each letter of each word, I am gradually transcribing this text in different forms – gilded, embossed, pinpricked and as watermarks. Each process is visually elusive. Some of them I have realised alone – others have been a collaborative process. I have worked again in Berlin with Gangolf Ulbricht and with Alfons Bytautas in the UK. The resulting forms operate on, in, and through the pages of the new books. Images of some of the objects found encased on the site of the Saved House, are also being explored through these different means. Here are a few images of the works in progress:












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Setting the Scene – Temporary Bindings

The light boxes holding “Gaze” and seen in the previous posting, act like a stage – once the light is turned off, the works exist but in a form that makes no real sense. Their feeling of impermanence lies in the very tension created by this knowledge.

Travelling to the Royal Library in the Hague with Idelette van Leeuwen, the Rijks’ Head of Paper Conservation Studio, we examined books of the 16th and 17th centuries with bindings similar to temporary ones of the same period – that is to say, simple limp or semi-limp vellum bindings that would be removed at a later date once the final binding had been decided upon.

This experience has allowed me to consider another context within which the ephemeral in drawing might be explored. A different kind of “stage” could be set in the form of a series of unique artists’ books – books are bound in ways that echo the temporary bindings of the past. A series of books which convey the underlying and core themes of transience through their very materiality – and which in turn can be used like journals, diaries or notebooks.

Since that visit, I have started to work in the UK, Amsterdam and Berlin to develop these ideas. I am fortunate to be able to work with Albert Ames, Head of Book Restoration at the Rijks, who is playing a key role in binding the group of 25 books before his retirement next year.

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Dust on the Mirror

“Dust has implications about time, about something that can both cover and be removed from a surface. It can transform our understanding an object or a space – and how it is located in time.”

Sîan Bowen – extract from interview with Tony Godfrey, August 2010

Dust on the Mirror is the title of a current international group exhibition in which I am taking part at Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham and which has been curated by Tony Godfrey and Neil Walker. Taking its title from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna uses the metaphor of dust on the mirror to explain levels of spiritual consciousness, this exhibition brings together five artists from the eastern and western hemispheres.

Given the central role that the ephemeral is plays in my current project at the Rijksmuseum, the opportunity to participate in the exhibition and gain insight into how themes of transience have been explored by the other exhibiting artists, Donna Ong, Chris Cook, Susan Derges and Charwei Tsai, was very revealing.  Further information on the exhibition can be found at:  

Sian Bowen, from “Gaze” series, 2007,  palladium, silver and pigment on laser cut and pin pricked paper mounted in lightboxes.

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Papermaking in Berlin

I was very keen to find a papermaker that could understand the particular qualities of the stacks of frozen prints found on Nova Zembla. My first meeting with Berlin-based Gangolf Ulbricht was in Amsterdam where we spent two days at the Rijksmuseum examining the prints from the stores. Gangolf not only makes extraordinarily beautiful paper resulting in part from his deep understanding of historical papers and papermaking but over the years has worked on projects with a wide number of contemporary practitioners – a perfect combination! ( for example Washi Made in Berlin is currently being staged in Tokyo.)

Subsequently I have travelled to Berlin to work with him in his workshop with two objectives in mind. The first was to create a body of paper for the new drawings that has some of the qualities of the paper found in the ice. A laid historical mould was chosen for the purpose and Gangolf has worked to produce a body of bespoke paper of pure unbleached hemp. Held up to the light it has a distinct quality, in part due to the “shadows” which indicate the ribs of the mould. It reflects the light from its surface very softly – reminiscent of the papers used for the prints and the unbleached rags that would have been used to make them.

The second objective has been more complex to achieve. As the relationship between drawing, materiality and the ephemeral is at the centre of the project, I have been keen to explore the potential of translating my drawing into watermarks. Again, bespoke papers of pure hemp have been produced for this purpose. We have also been working to develop watermarks based on the handwritten script of a navigational guide discovered inside the lid of a trunk on the frozen site of the Saved House.

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A Process That Can’t Be Hurried

I am drawn to the materiality of the prints and other objects found encased in the ice of Nova Zembla – layers of prints under ice, lichen and permafrost.

Books were also amongst the finds – a dictionary, a history book, a book on China, a songbook and a Bible. They give a sense of what the stacks of prints would have been like before conservation – some so fragile that they seem as though they could easily be reduced to dust, other compressed into hard, blackened papier-mache. Readable and unreadable.


I have been intrigued by a process of which I learned that involves the three-dimensional scanning of objects and then the building of replicas from layers of fine dust – white dust, which is then solidified: echoing the powdered snow solidifying into ice around the objects – a material transformation that is encapsulated in all the stacks of prints and damaged books from the Saved House.

Travelling recently with Balint Polas of Northumbria University to Amsterdam gave me the opportunity to make such scans of this small collection of books. The process was slow and painstaking – for one book, we carried out over forty scans. We commented to each other that it is a process that cannot be hurried. As we watched the laser beam move slowly across the facets of each object it gave us the chance to observe the object itself in a totally different manner: slowing us down, helping us to understand the complexity of the books in relation to their past and present state.

I have now moved onto the next stage – working with Northumbria University colleague, Dr. Phil Hackney, in order to produce the replicas of the books from the three- dimensional scans – intricate replicas which I plan to use in a range of ways in order to create some of the new drawings.

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Paper to Ice, Ice to Paper


Having only heard about the stacks of Renaissance prints discovered in the Arctic as frozen papier mache blocks, I was obviously very anxious to see them. I had the chance to examine them for the first time with the former Head of Paper Conservation, Peter Poldervaat – nearly four hundred works that are held in the stores of the Rijksmuseum. During the 1970’s Peter had laboriously divided the fragmented layers of each pile one from another using enzymes to aid the process. The aim had been to understand what prints lay within each stack. In doing so he was able to see for the first time in centuries, the works that had been selected for the journey through the ice. The process gradually revealed the wide range of subject matter. This is both secular and religious – landscapes, mythical and Biblical scenes, images of women in costumes and soldiers in uniform.

I was told that the prints do not appear to have been of the best quality and in the main are copies after those by masters of the time. They had been bought primarily from one dealer in Amsterdam and tied up in bundles to be transported for trading with China. The expedition never got close to its destination – it was always going to be impossible. Perhaps some prints were burned as fuel in the over-wintering refuge. They were not precious enough in order to struggle to take them back to the Netherlands – and so were left to freeze for three centuries in the Saved House.

The cross-referencing of prints imagery to that of others of the period and the quality of their execution is not of key interest to me. What I find more intriguing is their material transformation in relation to possibilities for drawing. They are extraordinary not so much for their content but for how they have survived such extreme conditions – the fragile paper fragments mounted onto Japanese paper supports seem to be more like pieces of soft, kid leather than paper. At times it looks as though it has been burnished again and again. This transformation from two dimensional prints to three dimensional papier maches blocks and then back once again to single sheets of prints, is also intriguing. Through the passage of time they have been transformed back and forth between wet and dry states. They were encased in ice for three centuries – and now are held in the controlled and monitored conditions of the Rijks’ stores.

I am slowly working my way through the now divided stacks and together with the Photographic Studio of the museum have been documenting them. Through this process, I begin to see the prints in a new light. Fragments of the same cloud appear again and again. The houses in a Flemish landscape now longer appear to stand upright – the whole scene has been distorted through the material transformation of the paper support. Adam and Eve are physically detached from one another – mounted and hinged onto separate pieces of thin Japanese paper. Through the process of hinging the fragments onto the backing support so that they can be lifted up and examined, they move once again in the direction of three-dimensionality.

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