Last spring, a man hiked up to Everest Base Camp and pitched a tent with a very different goal in mind than most of his neighbors. Artist Derek Eland wanted to explore humanity–our goals, resilience, dreams, fears–through the lived experience of the women and men on Everest. Instead of making a bid for the summit, he ingratiated himself with the international, transient community at EBC and built a public art installation in a tent that will be exhibited in the UK in 2017 before going on a world tour, eventually ending with a final show in Nepal.
“I wanted to understand from everyone at Everest Base Camp why they were there and what the place meant to them. I was interested in the back stories behind everyone, whether they were climbers or trekkers, porters, Sherpas, cooks, Icefall Doctors,” Eland says.
He created a “Diary Room,” a form of public-engagement-as-art that he has utilized before as a means of building empathy and connectivity between the viewers and the subject. Visitors to the tent would write down their stories and Eland would photograph them. He papered the tent’s walls with these stories and images. News of the Diary Room spread quickly throughout Base Camp—climber Conrad Anker was among those who filled out a card—and down the Khumbu Valley to Namche, encouraging trekkers to seek it out as well.
“I’m interested in what it’s like to ‘be human,’ particularly in stressful and difficult situations. I am also fascinated by the power of handwriting, especially in a digital age. When I ask people to write down how they feel or what a particular situation is like they just get on with writing, almost without thinking too much – it’s immediate. It’s honest and often poetic, moving and beautiful,” Eland says.
“As a result I’ve developed the ‘Diary Rooms’ approach, almost like a confessional room, where people have a voice and are allowed to be honest. I’ve used this approach to engage with many different communities and groups – people recently flooded out of their homes, people with dementia, and people on the front line in Afghanistan. When these amazing stories are re-contextualized in an art gallery setting, often by re-creating the Diary Room itself, supported by the film and photography work I also do, it makes a powerful impact on audiences.”
The Everest residency wasn’t part of an established program; Eland is the first “artist in residence” to set up camp on the mountain for the entirety of the climbing season. He organized the project himself.
“In 2012 I started planning a residency at Everest Base Camp, which would combine my love of the mountains, especially Everest and the Mallory and Irvine story, with my art practice,” Eland says.
After years of planning, consulting with climbers, and garnering support from the media, RAB, a mountaineering company, and the British Council, Eland headed to Nepal last May as part of a climbing expedition made up of Indian, Polish, and Japanese climbers. Though Eland didn’t go past the Khumbu Icefall (as intended), his support from the team was crucial to survival at Base Camp–they fed him and provided him a place to sleep–and also to his project. He documented his team’s entire expedition pre- and post-summiting and connected with other climbing groups through them.
“It was critical that the project represented the Nepali and Sherpa cultures. I also collaborated with Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre, who will help me take the final exhibition back to Nepal, and worked with a Nepali trekking company who helped get me and all my gear to and from base camp,” says Eland. “I didn’t want the project to be that of a Western artist imposing his views of Nepal and Everest Base Camp on the world. The issues I wanted to explore were centered on ambition and the ‘bucket list’; spirituality and the ‘Goddess Mountain’; and conservation and global warming’s impact on melting glaciers and litter.”
Setting up a studio at 17,500 feet wasn’t easy–Eland had to freezer-test his ink pens to ensure they would work in the cold, and his diary room tent blew down one night during a particularly nasty storm. He also dealt with the physical tolls of spending six weeks at altitude, with just half the typical amount of oxygen in the air. Upon returning home, the emotional and physical effects of his project set in.
“It’s had a massive impact on me and my perspective on life. I grew ill after I returned, which has made me stop, slow down and think. Being close to injury and death has also given me perspective,” Eland says, referring to the five climbers lost on Everest last season (several of whom filled out Diary Tent cards). “In Afghanistan, soldiers died who I worked with. Somehow Everest was different; climbing is, after all, a sport. I came to realize however that it’s much more than a sport. It’s an obsession, an escape, a pilgrimage, a life. I want the work which results from Everest Base Camp to do the people there and their stories justice.”
Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.