Ben Cullen Williams photographs Antarctica alongside the explorer Robert Swan
The artist has documented the continent to coincide with the 200th anniversary of its first sighting, and at a time when its future is under unprecedented peril. We chat with him about this remarkable project.
- Ruby Boddington
- 4 May 2020
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Ben Cullen Williams is an artist who explores the human relationship with the world in our rapidly changing environment. In the past, that’s seen him collaborate with Wayne McGregor in an exploration of artificial intelligence, use LED lights to mimic kinaesthesia, and use bricks as a metaphor for breaking down barriers on an international, national and domestic scale.
His most recent work – Fragile Strength, a series of images for a planned show of the same name, which was also to include a separate video work, Passage – is a continuation of such themes but on a whole other scale. It involved a trip to Antarctica with Robert Swan, the first man to ever walk unsupported to both the North and South Poles. On how this incredible trip came about, Ben coolly tells us that his interests take him “on expeditions to remote edge lands and undefined spaces. As a result, I was put in touch with Robert Swan who invited me on an expedition of his to the north of Antarctica.”
It’s a location Ben has been fascinated with since a young age when, as a child, he discovered the story of Captain Scott and his expedition to the South Pole through the black and white photographs of Herbert Ponting, the expedition’s photographer. “The images captured my imagination and since then I have dreamt of venturing to the continent in the footsteps of Captain Scott,” he explains, adding, “I see this show as a culmination of a 25-year-old dream.” From leaving the UK to returning home, the whole journey took around a month. Not only was it a mammoth trip, but Ben was able to take it alongside someone he so admires: “Robert Swan is the modern-day Captain Scott, so there isn’t really a better person to take you to the continent! He is truly inspiring, so it was a complete privilege.”
Ben’s striking yet hauntingly peaceful black and white photographs are in direct response to the work of Herbert Ponting. “Like his, they are innately abstract and diagrammatic due to the sculptural and unfamiliar nature of the continent,” he says. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica and so the work Ben produced while on his incredible trip capture a moment in the centuries-long cycle of melting and freezing, asking what the future of the place may be. They mediate on what the continent has been, and on humankind’s actions which may have forever altered the cyclical nature of this arid landscape.
Poetically translated through the medium of photography, one intertwined inextricably with the notion of time, Fragile Strength highlights the importance of documenting Antarctica – and much of the natural world – at this present time within the Anthropocene. They aim, Ben adds, “to provoke a dialogue about the continent’s liminality and its cycle that is now in transition, on a threshold, suspected but not yet known, at a tipping point in a direction of irreversible change.” However, he wants the images to retain a certain ambiguity and duality, to avoid any didactical consequences. “I don’t believe that a viewer’s reaction should be dictated,” he says.
A trip such as this is hard to fathom, and the current situation serves to only further its incomprehensibility for us. When asked about a moment which particularly stands out to him from his journey, Ben recalls: “En route, we sailed past massive fragments of the Larsen B ice shelf, an area half the size of Wales, that had splintered off from the mainland due to increased global temperatures. To this day it is one of the saddest and most terrifying yet beautiful things I have witnessed.”
The work was intended to be shown at Roman Road gallery in London, from 2 April, although like many other shows it had to be postponed. There are plans to reopen the exhibition at the soonest possible chance, however, and to keep himself busy Ben has been continuing his exploration into ideas around the human experience while in lockdown, writing his first book, and airing some video works online. Once the show does reopen, Ben hopes that upon seeing the work in this gallery context, visitors will “come away with questions about the world, not answers.”
GalleryBen Cullen Williams: Works from the exhibition Fragile Strength. All images courtesy of Roman Road and AucArt. © Ben Cullen Williams
Ben Cullen Williams: Strength, 2016, from the series Fragile Strength. Courtesy of Roman Road and AucArt. © Ben Cullen Williams
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.