Cold Artist

When people ask me who I am and what I do, I tell them that I am a «triple-cross hybrid” – a vagabond, an adventure artist, and a messenger who delivers unsolicited news from the places that are invisible to most people. Quite often this news is not exactly the one that the world wants to hear or accept, so the messenger is responsible.


But since I don't have a permanent address, it's really hard to hold me responsible. I walk and carry my home on my back. It weighs nothing and feels like a second skin. You can call me a human snail, if you wish. In hot desert and in cold desert, my home is always with me, and that's exactly why I am never home sick.

My basic nomadic instincts - a “homelessness” - I've inherited from my ancestors, the Komi caribou herders, who for centuries lived in their portable skin houses, the chums, and travelled the tundra along with their Arctic neighbors, the fabulous Nenets. All their life was about adaptation and survival. They mastered the art of staying alive. But by no means my ancestors pitied themselves or wished another/better life, so why should I?

My homeland is a truly special place. It's cold in the winter, and muddy in the summer. There are billions of blood-thirsty flying predators and not a single blossoming garden. People of my tribe are often toothless (so am I) and sometimes have lice (I do too - sometimes). But lice are just a part of an equation. A part of the equilibrium if you wish. And indeed, it's not lice that make people angry, unhappy, jealous and mad at each other. It's not lice that start feuds and major wars. It's definitely something else. But not lice!

But as a little girl, I did not know it. As a little girl, I hated lice, I was embarrassed to be a «tundra girl» and instead wanted to be a «city girl» and enjoy a glamorous life in the heart of a «lice-free civilization». More than anything I wanted to become a ballerina and dance at the Bolshoy Theater. I had many dreams at that time, but most of them did not come true.

To understand who I am, I decided to become a reporter. It was by far to the cheapest way to see the world and to meet people living in it. In 1979 I joined the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda, becoming its youngest correspondent at the time. As a reporter, I travelled extensively to the outskirts of the Soviet Empire and beyond, from the hot sands of Kara-Kum to the hot geysers of Kamchatka, from the barren passes of Pamir and Hindu-Kush to the icy deserts of Chukotka.

I worked for a military department and my job was to write the lyrics about the art of destruction. Those were the times when bombs were getting better and better, tanks were getting better and better, and the best civilized minds on both sides of the Atlantic Pond busied themselves with the question of how to destroy each other better and faster. It was the time of the First Cold War.

One day, by chance, I ended up in the land of my ancestors. At the height of the Space Race they still wore skins and believed that the polar bear was their grandfather. And yet, they lived a life! They shared land and food. They spoke different languages and believed in different gods, yet, for some reason it never occurred to them to destroy each other over a word, or a bush, a patch of moss, or a misinterpreted word. I had a hard time explaining to them the ongoing Soviet War in Afghanistan; they refused to understand why people had to kill others whom they have never feuded with, or even seen eye to eye.

Living with my ancestors and learning from them has become my real schooling. They could see things hidden behind the horizon. They could forecast the weather with the accuracy modern meteorologists still can not. From them I learned to see in the dark and to hear in the silence. From them I learned to trust my body and my inner instincts.

I gradually started moving away from words: words were just not powerful enough. I started working through images. But simple images, even though many of them were better than words, were often not good enough either. So, I had to think of something else, something better – of a new way of communication if you wish.

I wanted to make sure that my message gets to people’s hearts. I wanted them to think differently and one day maybe even to act differently. So, I quit my journalistic job to become someone else.

All these things and themes play a major role in my art. What is an illusion? What is a reality? What is a reflection of a reality? What is deception? In my art I use all kind of «free» multilayer and stretchy materials, from blubber and ice to their reflections in broken hunters' mirrors, but mostly I use my own body – as my main communication means. And this obviously makes many people a bit uncomfortable about what I do. The reason is that the «civilized» world even in the era of the genome sees the human body as lower matter, something to be feared, or in the best case something not really worthy of talking about.

I definitely trust my body more than I trust my mind. I believe that my body is a much more accurate, reliable and sincere instrument than my logic or my “civilized mind”. My body does not lie, while my mind can easily lie and successfully deceive myself and others around me.

From my ancestors I learned that our «upper mind» is like an iceberg floating on water: most is underneath and only the top is above. We assume that what our upper mind tells us to do is logical and therefore «right». And we somehow forget that our upper mind itself is only a derivative of all our basic instincts hidden underneath.

My stage is an ice desert – whether it is a frozen tundra or a drifting sea ice.

Here you can see hundred of miles in each direction. And there is an absolute silence. Many people keep asking me: «How can a stage be without an audience?» And this is true: there are hardly any people around. So, at times I am performing for my own self. Sometimes – for snow foxes. Sometimes for wondering creatures that come out of fairy-tales.

But sometimes for people who live here and who know these old stories better than anyone.

I dance barefoot and in total silence. But Arctic silence is so special. It consists of barking of a seal, cracking of ice, howling of a wolf, sniffing of a snow fox, growling of a bear, breathing of a whale, nightly chorus of the dogs, thunder-cap of a collapsing iceberg, yelling of a dog-driver, and a cosmic silence of the dancing Northern Lights ...

It's pure silence and pure sound, it's light and movement - constant movement - simultaneously an attempt to survive and to challenge the world. As I dance in this very minute, I am thinking of my ancestors migrations that lasted for thousands of years - and I feel how this very minute turns into an eternity.

Since my early childhood, I strangely felt how my body was ... so to say, feral. Half-human, half-animal. At times I felt more of an animal rather than human. My skin was always more important for me than clothes. I never owned more than one skirt, a dress and a pair of jeans. Skin is what equals us all. But most people are afraid of their own skin. They see nakedness - even their own one - as something ugly. They are ashamed of it, they are ashamed of their own skin. They hide under the cloths, from their fear and their shame.

Let's fly to the Sun! I dream my wildest dreams on the slippery surface of the mighty Sermersuaq and think of reflectivity. As I am standing on Greenland's ice sheet, my keds are full of water. You see that ice is not really white, it does not really shine. it reflects less and less light. Sermersuaq is darkening. It is melting...

A few years ago, as the pictures of my performances started navigating the internet, a Swedish Explorer Mikael Strandberg called me a “ColdArtist”, and that name kind of stuck to me.

Whether this name is right or not, I create things that I do not own. I feel like a simple antenna that catches random waves that rush through space, through everyone else – not only me. That's why I know that I am not really in charge of the things that I do creatively.

So I really can't help those who want my body, my art and my life-style be re-conditioned. I am just going on my own journey and learning about myself.

Photography: © 2010-2013 Galya Morrell, © 1978 Alexey Boytsov, © 2012 Ole Jorgen Hammeken, © 2011 Jonathan Sanders, © 2010 Bertrand Lozay, © 2011-2012 Kevin Morrell.

"I always believed that the adventure for its own sake is meaningless… I believe that the real adventure should build cultural bridges, bring people together and and melt ice walls that otherwise separates them."


Thank you to all those who continue to support my work and occasionally are crazy enough to jump into a frozen river to see if the whole thing is real!

© Copyright 2010 Galya Morrell. All rights reserved.

                 Made by Oni Lai