The first artist-in-residence of the Tara Pacific expedition, Elsa Guillaume gives us her impressions of this long voyage and memorable experience shared with sailors and scientists: a strong influence on her current and future work.
Elsa, can you tell us what brought you to Tara?
In my work, there has always been this attraction and influence of exploration stories. At first I was mainly interested in mountains and glaciers. Then it was the first expeditions to the poles with their intriguing photos in black and white. In 2010, I started to dive, and since then the ocean and the abyss are subjects that constantly fascinate me. It’s funny because I’d never really sailed before. It was kind of a fantasy for me. Aboard Tara, it’s a little like being on the space shuttle, lost in the middle of nowhere, which I like very much. It was a crazy dream that I wanted to try, and then it became reality when I won the COAL Prize – Ocean 2015.
Aboard Tara, did living conditions influence your artistic project?
Absolutely! At first I thought I would draw only a double page each day, but on Tara everyone was working so hard, I figured one drawing per day was too little… (laughs). Well, I had a big stock of paper!
Everyone on board has a different and unusual background. It’s so different from my artistic milieu that I wanted to keep track of their stories. The magnitude of my project quickly evolved so I wouldn’t miss anything that each person wanted to tell me. For each of the 15 people, I created a portrait, a mixture of notes, diagrams and sketches. Science, anecdotes, bizarre quotations — everything will find its place in my final project.
What’s the state of your “Coral Cosmography” project now?
I’m in a phase of digesting and synthesizing the whole experience and my notebooks. I’m scanning them, making cut-outs and assembling them. Once everything is printed, my notebooks serve as an information bank that I can dip into for ‘Coral Cosmography’, a large underwater cartography. I’m testing papers, formats, inks, etc.
Besides being at sea, how is Tara different from other habitations?
It really can’t be compared with other places. Up until now I’ve spent 2 to 6 months in a workshop with one artistic medium made available. The Tara experience is truly unique. Everyone explained and shared their knowledge with enthusiasm. It was amazing to meet all these people who have mostly experienced exceptional things but who remain very humble. I’m still wide-eyed with admiration!
What surprised you the most aboard the schooner?
I was a bit apprehensive about the very close quarters, but we were at ease on Tara, both in the main room and cabins, not to mention the deck! And I must confess that I had a somewhat simplistic vision of cooking on board. I expected canned food everyday in the middle of the Pacific. But it wasn’t that at all!
Any advice for the next embarking artist?
I would say it’s important to get away from old work habits and not try to “produce” your project immediately but observe and just participate. Aboard Tara, what’s enriching is the daily life with the crew and the scientists: climbing on the boom to help fold the sails, giving a helping hand to divide coral samples into the hundreds of tubes, rinsing the salt off the deck, and learning things about cooking at sea. Especially, take advantage of every moment because time passes very quickly. It’s necessary to make the most out of being on board. After returning home, it feels very strange — as if the experience aboard Tara was an extraordinary parenthesis on the timeline. What’s certain is that I’ve returned full of images and ideas, and this residency on Tara will influence my work well beyond the « Cosmography Corallienne » project.
Tara’s next artist’s residency will be occupied by Maki Ohkojima, a painter of Japanese origin who will embark at the end of January between Guam and Yokohama (Japan). Discover her work on her web-site: ohkojima.com
Interview by Conny Mamber and Johanna Sanson