International arts competition launched

International competition launched for artists to shine a light on the story of humankind and the whale on the island of South Georgia

A major international artistic competition centred at Grytviken Whaling Station on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is being launched today to reimagine the centrepiece of its cultural heritage and in doing so, highlight powerful conservation messages for the future of our planet. Run by Dundee-based charity the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT), the competition, set within the Government of South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) Heritage Framework for the island, calls out to artistic talents worldwide to come forward with creative ideas for this prestigious commission.

This remote island is known across the world for many different reasons – as an incredible near-pristine tourist destination with abundant wildlife, the place where Shackleton found rescue for his men in 1916 after their ill-fated ‘Endurance’ expedition and - due to its importance as a feeding ground for whales in the South Atlantic - as the epicentre of the whaling industry for more than half a century.

Thanks to the exemplary stewardship over many years by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and the efforts of South Georgia Heritage Trust and its US-based counterpart the Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI), South Georgia is regaining its status as the Serengeti of the South. As a model of conservation best practice, for many the island is an emblem of hope, demonstrating how humankind can shift from exploitation to conservation of our fragile planet. This unique international artistic competition seeks to interpret the past and highlight this successful turnaround in the fortunes of an island that was facing the destruction of its native and iconic wildlife due to human actions.

One of the world’s last great wilderness areas, South Georgia is an internationally important seabird habitat. For two centuries its bird numbers were devastated by the invasive rodents brought to the island on sealing and whaling vessels. But over the last decade South Georgia has been slowly returning to its former glory. Following the world’s largest rodent eradication project, which was completed by SGHT and FOSGI in 2018, native bird populations are thriving once again.

The need for habitat restoration on South Georgia arose from the impact of the sealing and whaling industries that were centred on South Georgia for almost two centuries. In this period where industries harvested the region’s bountiful marine mammals, the populations of Blue, Fin, Humpback, Sei and Southern Right whales in South Georgia’s waters were taken to near extinction. The ships carrying men and provisions to the island also brought stowaway rats and mice which decimated some ground-nesting native bird populations which had evolved in the absence of predators; including prions, terns and petrels, as well as the endemic South Georgia Pipit and the South Georgia Pintail.

The Trust, along with its US-based counterpart FOSGI, raised £10million from supporters to finance the entire eradication project, and following nearly ten years of endeavour in often treacherous conditions, SGHT, FOSGI and GSGSSI declared the island rodent free in May 2018 – heralding a wildlife renaissance for South Georgia.

Thanks to careful environmental management by Government, the island’s wildlife is resurging. South Georgia is home to 98% of the world’s Antarctic fur seals and half the world’s elephant seals, despite the former’s near elimination during the sealing era. Millions of penguins breed on the island, as do several species of endangered albatross whose decline due to bycatch is being addressed through work supported by SGHT, FOSGI and GSGSSI. Fifty years after the industry ceased to operate on South Georgia, whale numbers are slowly increasing at this important feeding ground.

The fate of these iconic indicator species is representative of humankind’s relationship with nature as a whole. SGHT and FOSGI are supporting an initiative to help protect and conserve whale species found in South Georgia waters through a partnership with British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which is carrying out research into whale ecology to help inform the management of our seas and the recovery of whales in the Southwest Atlantic.

Still from drone footage of Grytviken Whaling Station, showing the old landing point (the “Flensing Plan”) for Whale Catcher ships

In launching the competition Alison Neil, Chief Executive of the South Georgia Heritage Trust said: ‘The impact of humanity on South Georgia is emblematic of the fragility of our planet, but also gives us hope, thanks to the island’s dramatic turn-around in recent years. That is why we have chosen to launch this exciting international artistic competition to shine a light on how, through a greater understanding of the past and our shared cultural heritage, humanity can move from an attitude that the natural world is there to be exploited, to one embracing conservation and protection of the environment. SGHT and FOSGI are embarking on a cultural heritage programme to tell the world more about the human story on South Georgia and the whale is an integral part of this narrative.’

‘The era of whaling and sealing was a dark period in our planet’s history, but the tide is turning, not only for South Georgia’s birds who have been freed from invasive predators, but also for the recovering whale species in the seas around the island, which thanks to GSGSSI now encompasses a 1.24 million km2 Marine Protected Area. This international competition will invite artists to reimagine the Flensing Plan which was the heart of the former whaling station at Grytviken. We are putting a call out for artistic and design talent to come forward to help create something remarkable, to leave a lasting impression on the 15,000+ visitors to the island each year and also, through outreach activities and in partnership with GSGSSI and the University of Dundee’s Centre for Remote Environments, to engage the wider international public.’

‘We are particularly delighted that Grytviken and South Georgia feature prominently in the first episode of the BBC Natural History Unit’s new seven-part series: Seven Worlds – One Planet. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the programme showcases the amazing wildlife and landscape of one of the world’s last great wildernesses.’

How the competition will work

Working with an experienced arts agency, SGHT is launching the search for individuals, collaborative partnerships and organisations from various artistic disciplines – or a mix or consortia from these disciplines – to put together a proposal to mark this momentous turnaround in the fortunes of South Georgia. The competition will open in early November, with the winning project announced in May 2020.

A full creative brief can be found at along with the key dates/timings of the competition, which will take place in two phases, with initial expressions of interest being shortlisted down to three projects that will need to be submitted in further detail.

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