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Whilst Resident Artist in Drawing at the V&A, London, 2006-8, Siân Bowen learned of the Nova Zembla collection of prints at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Extraordinary for having lain frozen in the Arctic for three centuries, this collection was used as a stimulus for a project hosted by the Rijksmuseum in which Bowen investigated the relationship between the materiality of drawing and the ephemerality of museum objects on paper. As Guest Artist in Drawing, 2010-12, she produced a new body of works - these were shown alongside her personal selection of the Nova Zembla prints to form a solo exhibition, Capturing the Ephemeral: Siân Bowen and Nova Zembla, at the Rijksmuseum in 2012. Another iteration of the exhibition was staged the same year at Fruehsorge Contemporary Drawing, Berlin and at Trinity Contemporary, London in 2013.


The prints from the collection are the material evidence of a story of endurance, preservation and loss. They were carried as merchandise on Willem Barents’ 1596 attempted expedition to the Far East via the Northeast Passage. An over-wintering refuge known as ‘The Saved House’ was built on Nova Zembla in which the prints lay in stacks until their discovery: the refuge had filled with ice, transforming the stacks into frozen papier-mâché blocks. In 1977 methods were devised at the Rijksmuseum to separate the layers and reassemble the thousands of fragments. The physicality of the prints thus underwent metamorphic change: from two-dimensional paper sheets to three-dimensional hardened, blackened blocks and back again to paper.


Bowen developed dialogues with a range of experts with knowledge of the Nova Zembla collection, of Barents’ expedition and the archaeological site of the Saved House – curators of Dutch history, paper conservators, archaeologists, polar experts and geologists. She also retraced part of Barents’ route through the arctic, this journey being critical to the development of the works as they evolved.


The project was supported by a grant from the  Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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