Slipping quietly out of Tromsø through the Norwegian fjords on board a hundred-year-old Dutch schooner, the Noorderlicht (Northern Lights), none of us was really aware what kind of voyage lay ahead. We sailed out to an area of sea fondly called the Devil's Dance Floor, where the current from the Gulf Stream meets the cold Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. Swells reach 30 feet, and all but the most hardened sailor turns a paler shade of green. The painter Gary Hume, one of our companions on board, said of the art of retching: "Oh, I just spit up like a cat when I need to, then get on with what I'm doing!" It took three days to reach Svalbard in the High Arctic, a place on the edge of existence.
The campaigning organisation Cape Farewell has so far led three Arctic ex-peditions for a collective of artists, scien-tists, writers, educators, journalists and environmentalists. The aim is to demonstrate at first hand the effects of global warming, and to encourage us to report, in our different ways, from the front line of climate change. As visual artists, we were invited by Cape Farewell's founder, David Buckland, in early 2003. Others on our expedition included the artists Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread and the writer Ian McEwan. A forthcoming exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, "The Ship: the art of climate change", showcases some of the products of our extraordinary voyage.
Our induction to life in the Arctic in-volved hours of hanging on to a Skidoo and gripping each other's backs as we drove miles through a frozen wonderland in temperatures of -30º. Never had we experienced such cold. The physicality of being in this place reduced the need for much introspective thought; walk- ing across the tundra, we slipped into another reality. Everything we laid eyes on was phenomenal and intriguing. We watched walruses heaving themselves across the land, their clumsy movements totally at odds with their engaging grace and agility in the water.
Evidence of man's intervention was plain to see. In the Russian coal-mining town of Barentsburg, black coal dust stained the white ice; on Moffen Island, hundreds of walrus skulls lay without tusks. The shoreline was littered with fishing nets, plastic bags and plastic buoys. There are moves afoot to "Clean up Svalbard", and on our last night on ship we all became recipients of a small Svalbard badge. It stirred a kind of Blue Peter mentality, that we had done our tiny "good Scout" bit to help sustain this island. Would that it were so simple.
An artwork emerged out of our experiences in this extraordinary place: a six-metre-long skeleton of a minke whale encrusted with a chemical growth of clear alum crystals. It has the appearance of a fossil frozen in a crust of naturally bril-liant ice crystals. The exploitation of Svalbard brought home to us the scale of the slaughter of these creatures. They were hunted for their oil in the 19th century, and now climate change is damaging their ocean habitat irreversibly.
Since the trip, the question to which we artists find ourselves returning is: "In a world of continuous change, how and why does change matter?" Our work is transient; it involves processes of growth, change, decay and erosion. We work with organic materials - grass, bones, crystals. Yet the stark fact is that the rate at which the world is changing has no precedent: nearly 70 per cent of biologists think we are in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction.
We resist being described as "environmental artists" and are aware of the pitfalls of didactic art. Our work has never appealed to a logical rationale: rather, it elicits strong emotions from the viewer. Our crystallised whale skeleton is complex and fragile; it makes no concessions to a quick soundbite about climate change. We would rather arouse an energy in visitors to the exhibition, a psychic response, an intuitive acknowledgement of the force of nature and the integral part we all play in this very mortal world of change.
"The Ship: the art of climate change" opens on 3 June at the Natural History Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 5000). www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us
Arctic adventures: how was it for you
The pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs are generating a heat - the hot breath of our civilisation. How can we begin to restrain ourselves? We resemble successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit . . . We are fouling our nest, and we know we must act decisively, against our immediate inclinations . . . But can we agree among ourselves? We are a clever but quarrelsome species - in our public debates we can sound like a rookery in full throat. We are superstitious, hierarchical and self-interested, just when the moment requires us to be rational, even-handed and altruistic . . . We are shaped by our history and biology to frame our plans within the short term, within the scale of a single lifetime.
Now we are asked to address the well-being of unborn individuals we will never meet and who, contrary to the usual terms of human interaction, will not be returning the favour . . . Pessimism is intellectually delicious, even thrilling, but the matter before us is too serious for mere self-pleasuring. On our side we have our rationality, which finds its highest
expression and formalisation
in good science. And we have a talent for working together - when it suits us. Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international co-operation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end?
Being in the snow cave was so powerful because of the relationship between the made human world and the inherited earth. For me, it has been a very precious reinforcement of something I feel deeply: of how we are a gnat on the nose of a totally different universe.
I lowered a hydrophone into the water. The sound was a bewildering mass of millions of individual moments, like a vast waterfall. On the surface, sounds like gunshots echoed from the glacier. At one point in our three-hour visit a piece of ice estimated to weigh 40,000 tonnes fell into the sea with a cavernous, terrifying roar like a great beast. I felt that all these sounds had been latent in the ice for thousands of years, bursting into the air of our time, coming to us from a vast distance.