Who has not wondered about the unknown? Throughout history, expeditions of scientists and explorers have set out to discover the unknown, accompanied by artists to record their explorations. Alex Gould, the expedition artist for the Five Deeps expedition—five deep-sea dives to the deepest points of all five oceans—spoke to us about how she prepared, what it was like onboard the Pressure Drop vessel, and how her ideas and investigations developed.
By Alex Gould
In December 2018 the DSSV Pressure Drop made the first of five dives to the five deepest points of the world’s five oceans. I was excited and apprehensive. For explorer Victor Vescovo this was huge achievement, a feat of human endurance to face down fear, put faith in the expedition team and dive alone into the cold blackness below.
Becoming part of the project
Long before I was involved I was fascinated by this expedition, then in April, an email arrived from Dr. Alan Jamieson somewhere off Indonesia-–the Five Deeps team were inviting me to join them as the expedition artist I was elated! Victor Vescovo wanted to welcome me to the Pressure Drop for the dive to Horizon Deep off Tonga, I was speechless!
Time was short and there was a lot to prepare. The planning turned out to be 20% practical (the vaccinations I hadn’t had for 20 years and finding kit) the other 80% was an avalanche of ideas and yawning gaps of knowledge.
My initial feeling was that this was a momentous expedition akin to those explorers seeking the poles or landing on the moon. A combination of human endeavour and otherness, this was to become a landmark journey into the unknown.
Research as preparation
I started to track down historical references of explorers, journals and accounts I searched for the many varied experiences of the deep sea, the planets, ecosystems and expeditions. I was looking for a thread to run through all my paintings–the excitement and trepidation, the purpose and practicality of such a venture. To experience as much as possible over the Tongan trench I would need to immerse myself in the subject.
Discovering my focus
Although I initially approached this project with ecological questions, I was increasingly drawn to the human endeavour and experience of the deep sea. Through the exploration of a great unknown, an inhospitable and largely inaccessible mass of planet earth, this project promised new understandings for our comprehension of our planet.
The oceanic biosphere accounts for 99% of all life-supporting environments on Earth. In contrast, the land biosphere including land, air and soil offers just 1%. As the oceans are still being explored and discovered can we really say we know planet earth? If we don’t understand this planet and the delicate symbiotic environment we inhabit how do we even begin to understand its fine balances? It strikes me that it is time to focus, support the explorers, the geologists and scientists and rediscover our awe and enthusiasm for our planet. As the expedition artist it was my challenge to try to convey this.
Victor Vescovo and his team are striving to visit more than the record-breaking depths–they are interested in the deepest points of all five oceans. The expedition brings new scientific information to a global audience. Traditionally explorers setting forth to discover the extremes captured the hearts and minds of the people. I don’t know if today we can still embrace the awe of a new discovery like the moon landing of the 1960’s, but I really want to show this feat of human curiosity and challenge to the world.
The heart of the matter
Using a journal to record my thoughts I tried to articulate my ideas, are there sounds in the deep? Is breathing noisy? Does the submersible make electronic beeps and are they annoying? How do you stop over-thinking and how do you manage panic? Is there something innate in the explorer or are they people who seize opportunities? How do they cope with unintended consequences? What about the engineers? How does a submersible company realise sending a human and the complete life support system to the immense pressures of the deep?
Bubbling with ideas and questions I used the research to help me articulate these thoughts, in lieu of speaking to another expedition artist I found my own way. Envisaging a busy operational vessel with a limited time for questions I thought being prepared and concise would be an advantage and it was.
Ideas for paintings coalesced and some of those ideas developed into prints embracing the graphic nature of deep-sea narratives. I loved the second hand books that I purchased in beautiful printed jackets such as Seven Miles Down by Jacques Piccard and Robert S.Dietz. I found the movie imagery of deep-sea exploration a sci-fi delight and there is a place for those emotions within this expedition. It is dramatic, bold and optimistic and I am keen to be flexible in the mediums I use to communicate it.
Choosing a medium
Mindful of the hot climate in Tonga I decided not to paint on location. Oils were already dismissed because of the long drying time and the inability to transport wet artwork around the globe. I prefer acrylics to watercolour but they wouldn’t remain open long enough for my work so I concentrated on selecting pencils and pens for the trip.
On the vessel–the Pressure Drop
Joining the expedition in Tonga exceeded all my expectations, approaching the Pressure Drop at night I was excited by the sheer beauty of her. A compact and pristine ship, lights shining in the black night docked at her own harbour. I remain fascinated by the powerful black crane arms that fold onto her back like wings and all the while she holds this special submersible suspended on her deck and hidden from sight. This vessel was capable of doing what no other vessel has done before – it could dispatch the Limiting Factor into a specific deep trench in the ocean floor, one that has been mapped by the intricate sonar installed just outside the Pressure Drop’s hull. The Pressure Drop’s remarkable crew were ready to start preparing, launching, troubleshooting, leading, retrieving, investigating and collecting all manner of things from the electrical to the scientific, geological to practical.
I was so caught up in the moment I didn’t get a photo. This image is reproduced with kind permission from professional photographer Reeve Joliffe.
Capturing a moment
That is the reality of life on board a working vessel. Observation is paramount, being available to witness events unfold, to notice the ships equipment both old and new. My camera of choice for this trip wasn’t the usual Canon 7D – too heavy to fit in carry on luggage and if I wasn’t going to take the big intrusive camera for the best photos I thought a small inconspicuous camera to capture people as they really are – not posed, was better. I chose a Sony Cybershot the size of a small iphone with a good lens and decent optical zoom – plus if I dropped it I hadn’t lost much – the iphone was always my back up.
The little unassuming camera was perfect. It could be carried at all times and with its wrist strap, it made traversing the ship much easier when the waves picked up and the lively ocean rolled me around the vessel. The waves weren’t that big – maybe 2 meters but the swells came from different directions and the wind seemed to chart another course – it was easy to feel comfortable but it didn’t lend itself to plein air painting. The only time it was quiet, I chose to sketch the satellite tower and this was the one time I should have been in a briefing meeting. I felt rude to have missed the meeting and gave my apologies but it reinforced that my approach to being an artist on board was to observe and research stories not immerse myself in slow detailed sketches and miss some of the key moments.
The photos I took are the basis of my paintings and I expect to amalgamate several images into one. I felt uneasy as I approached land and I’d stored all my images in one camera. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a smart move. If I had wi-fi I certainly could have uploaded iphone photos to the cloud but wi-fi is an intermittent luxury at sea. If I had a laptop I could have downloaded the SD card data. On the Friday and Saturday I resorted to my iphone, not prepared to risk my images if something happened to the camera. Throughout the trip I had been trying to meet everyone and learn their stories, interested in the personal situations that led the crew to join the expedition. The photos are the visual prompts I need to recall their stories, and they are photographed with painting in mind. The images are pivotal tools in my experience as expedition artist, and the knowledge gives me the confidence to paint the subject well.
The infamous sketchbook
Artists are often given advice to always carry a sketchbook–never missing an opportunity to sketch a sight or idea. I don’t hold with that–I never have done but I did try to fulfil my preconceived idea of an expedition artist by taking a sketchbook–4 in fact. However, each time I sketched I was missing an exchange, or worse, when I sketched people I unintentionally made them self-conscious. It was a backward move after getting to know everyone. I stopped sketching, because it didn’t serve my purpose, I wanted to communicate more than what I could see.
This felt like a failing as I had bought 4 heavy sketchbooks over 10,300 miles! I hadn’t considered weight when selecting my paper, but keen to get good paper to draw on and a bright white surface I’d disregarded major travel brands. Belatedly I understand that the compromise of having cream means much lighter book. Next time I would swap the 3 of the 4 sketchbooks for a laptop – but I’d still like to take my Seawhite of Brighton.
A sketchbook was invaluable for notes and I wrote up ideas and thoughts whenever I could. I have learnt to keep a journal which has helped me remember ideas in an orderly way.
Reflecting on an expedition
Throughout the journey there have been exceptional moments such as watching the Limiting Factor launch and retrieving scientific landers. I am acutely aware of the various juxtapositions I’ve found. The human and machine, the low tech and high tech. The strongest is the contrast of power between the huge, solid metal arms of the Pressure Drop’s cranes with the latent fluid power of the ocean.
As an onlooker the crane seems black, ominous and powerful and yet the ocean can crush and rip through metal, rock and everything in its path. I read Susan Casey’s book The Wave prior to the expedition as she was also a guest on board and incidentally my roommate. I have a renewed interest in the energy of the ocean surging around the globe and this trip is just scratching the surface of how to comprehend that. I believe my journey has only just begun with this unique chapter aboard the Five Deeps Expedition.
Having planned a few days rest after the long journey home I was excited to start work. Unfortunately I had mal de barquement (land sickness) which feels like stepping off a roundabout and trying to stand still. It wasn’t bad and it didn’t stop me developing my creative brief for the partners of the Five Deeps Expedition or beginning a long overdue instagram account but it did stop me painting. I have so much pent up excitement about the art – all the ideas jostling to be tackled first – it’s the lovely hubris of ideas not yet realised or wrestled with. I also have a further 1,500 photos to catalogue before beginning.
I think this intermission has benefited my ideas – slowing me down and allowing me to continue to read up on the oceans. I have been extremely fortunate to be invited aboard and to be in the company of so many interesting people. They have made a lasting impression on me and I have some incredible new friendships but as I collect my ideas I will be moulding and shaping all those experiences and stories with the knowledge gained, to create paintings and prints that have value and communicate some of this. I hope that they spark a conversation and inspire people to learn more about the Five Deeps Expedition, exploration of Planet Earth and the Oceans.