With an interest in heritage, identity and our relationship with environment, both natural and human-made, Lorna Mackay's work frequently incorporates multiple creative processes.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that lies within the Arctic Circle, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole. At 78 degrees north, it is home to the northernmost town on earth, Longyearbyen, where polar bears outnumber people and its estimated 2000 inhabitants must carry a gun for protection whenever they leave the settlement.
Located on top of the world, it contains sweeping areas of unspoiled, raw Arctic wilderness. Originally discovered in 1596 by Dutch whalers, Svalbard (meaning ‘cold coasts’ in Norwegian) was repurposed by northern European hunters and trappers in the 18th Century. Coal mining began at the beginning of the 20th Century, and several permanent communities were established, though only one remains operational today. Many derelict coal mines still stand alongside newer structures on the mountainsides like ghostly monuments, looking down on civilisation as a reminder of the formerly thriving industry.
Svalbard is not typically a place people spend their entire lives or where families are continued through generations, although a few family generations do reside there. People have generally come and gone, contributing to Svalbard’s distinctive history. The history of the islands is rich in tragic events, and graves are common relics of culture.
Founded in 1909 by American mining businessman Munro Longyear, the main settlement of Longyearbyen is home to one small hillside cemetery, which dates back to 1918 following the death of seven Norwegian miners during the Spanish Flu epidemic making it of cultural and environmental interest to researchers. The cemetery is still used for urn burials, despite claims that it is ‘forbidden’ to die in Svalbard. However, record rainfall has triggered some of the worst landslides to hit Longyearbyen. This has forced local authorities to seek alternative locations for the hillside cemetery to prevent obliteration.
With global warming being one of the most important issues of our time, research and tourism have become important supplementary industries in Svalbard, featuring among others the University Centre and the Global Seed Vault, which houses seed samples from all over the world should we need them in the event of large scale human-made or natural disaster. The latter underwent major renovations in 2018 after the entrance to the Vault was breached by melting permafrost following continuously rising temperatures.
With plans to close its sole operational coal mine, Svalbard now finds itself in a confused identity: part hub of pioneering scientific research on the front line of climate change, part otherworldly tourist destination at the end of the earth.