Through the Looking Glass: Artists and writers redefine the way we look at Antarctica


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By Peter Rejcek

Science through the lens of the camera, through the fine tip of a paintbrush, through words inspired by a world found upside down on the globe. These are some of the media by which artists and writers attempt to render the ineffable beauty and biology of Antarctica into tangible form. That's the poetry behind the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. It's intended to show the American public what goes on through the eyes of people who are generally not scientists but excel in expressing their experiences in creative ways, according to Kim Silverman, NSF program officer. The NSF received 330 applications for the program between 1992 and 2004, Silverman said.

During that time 66 proposals were selected by peer panels from various fields in the arts, science and technology, she added.

The selection process is "similar to that of the scientists," she said, with the two main criteria being the proposal's intellectual merit and the breadth of its intended impact. "It's a highly competitive program," Silverman noted. Indeed, the NSF aver ages 22 proposals a year, with the number of applications nearly doubling that average over the last two years. About six projects receive grants each year.

"The program is just growing," Silverman said. On the following three pages the Sun revisits five past participants of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to see what works they produced and how their experiences have impacted their outlook in other ways.

Norbert Wu One of the world's pre-eminent underwater photographers, Norbert Wu first came to Antarctica as a participant in the Artists and Writers program in 1997. Since then, he's made two additional trips to the Ice, the most recent in 2001. "When you first get there, at the beginning of the Antarctic spring, the water is clearer than anywhere in the world," Wu said. "It can reach 1,000 feet of visibility. In comparison, a clear day in the tropics is 200 feet at best. It's the last really untouched place on earth, and that is what has drawn me back." Wu produced a prodigious amount of work during those trips. Photographs from his three seasons at McMurdo were published last year as a large format book, "Under Antarctic Ice," from the University of California Press. Another major project during more recent visits involved the film ing of a high-definition documentary on Antarctica's underwater world. The PBS documentary aired in 2003 as part of the Nature series. Wu said the film's use of high-definition TV technology, or HDTV, was a landmark production. "The film is already seen as a ground-breaking effort because of the technology and the subject matter, and will therefore be seen and reviewed in more venues than the initial PBS broadcast," he said.

William Fox

Writer Bill Fox found himself in a place familiar to many who have visited Antarctica for the first time - he had the irresistible urge to do it again.

"Obviously being on the Ice for almost three months generated a huge amount of writing, leaps forward in thinking about how human cognition encounters space and transforms it into place - and the all-too-predictable desire to return and do more," he said.

Fox's book "Terra Antarctica" from Trinity University Press is scheduled to hit bookshelves this fall. The book delves into the history of the artistic, cartographic and scientific images of the continent. That work led to a similar project with NASA on Devon Island, where the NASA-Haughton Crater Project is practicing for Mars.

"I mean, where else to go once you've been on the Ice?" Fox wondered.

An excerpt from an essay that was published in Orion magazine in 2004 is reprinted here, and will appear in a book of essays he hopes to finish next year, "Climbing Mount Limbo: Essays on the Edge of Land and Language." Several other essays are also finished or in the works, he said. In fact, the longer Fox has been away, the stronger his ties to the continent seem to become. He was a curator for an exhibition in Los Angeles for the Center for Land Use Interpretation about "Antarctic One," the road from McMurdo to Scott Base.

"All this has led to being in contact with a constantly expanding circle of Antarctic writers, artists and scholars from Germany, France, England, New Zealand, Australia and around the U.S.," said Fox, who came to the continent in 2001.

The following is an excerpt from an essay written by Fox and published in Orion magazine last year. It's also set to appear in a book of Fox's collected essays in 2006:

I've been here for almost three months, working as a visiting writer both in the Crary library and out in the field, and this is my last night in the Antarctic. I'm heartbroken to be flying out in two hours on a National Guard cargo plane to Christchurch. It does that to everyone, leaving here. I've never met anyone who has worked in the Antarctic who didn't want to go back.

Just offshore a red-and-white U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker churns a circle in the sea ice, keeping open the channel it's made for the annual delivery of food and supplies that will soon arrive on a freighter. Across the sound the mountains stand fourteen-thousand-feet high. I've spent much of the last three months looking at them, either while out on the sea ice or from the top floor of the lab.

Every time I'd take a break from writing on my laptop, I'd go prop my elbows on the deep window casements to stare out at the peaks and glaciers. Most mornings, when the air had warmed enough above the sea ice, a Fata Morgana would appear; impossible cliffs would flicker into existence for an hour or two, slowly changing shape as the thermal discontinuity between surface and air shifted slightly.

The Antarctic is like that, throwing up extravagant promises before you and then melting them away. The Bridge of Size between the lab and Building 155 is a pun on the Bridge of Sighs in Italy, and tonight both wind and emotion cut through me, singing a duet of loss, which is what the poem we?re carving on the bridge is all about.

Connie Samaras

To capture the dynamics between extreme environments and built space, Connie Samaras decided to go to the end of the Earth.

Samaras spent three weeks at Pole last November on a photographic mission to study the contrast between extreme environment and living space.

"It took me the better part of my stay to be able to finally see and image the strange juxtapositions of scale between landscape and built environments," recalled Samaras, a professor in the Department of Studio Art at the University of California, Irvine.

The images are still fresh in her mind, she said: "The sea-like nature of the desert ice plateau and the divisions of day and night one can see on the horizon under 24-hour daylight; the fragile linear markings of the antennae fields against the ice; the things that will soon no longer be, the Dome, its interiors, the skinless plywood surfaces of the new station."

Samaras shot about 500 pictures during her stay at Pole. She culled about a dozen, blown up mural-sized, for several upcoming exhibitions. It was difficult, she said, not to focus on the Antarctic vistas and instead capture what she called the "fragments" that people normally see.

"Using close-up lenses, standing in the outside and looking back on the built environment of the inside was a disturbing experience," she explained. "Perhaps it was the harshness of the weather - I was there early in the season - but in the end, I think it was more the result of turning my back to the idea of the panorama since it is through panoramic images that people are most used to seeing faraway spaces represented."

Joan Myers

Joan Myers has been busy preparing her photographs for a traveling exhibit, as well as putting together a book of Antarctic images. "Wondrous Cold: An Antarctic Journey," is scheduled to premiere at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in May 2006.

Returning to work behind the lens hasn't been easy since her visit to Antarctica in the summer of 2002-03.

"It's been hard to photograph after Antarctica," she said. "The place is so powerful and the experience of photographing there so all-involving that everything else has seemed unimportant by comparison."

Myers said she originally wanted to come to Antarctica because she's always been interested in how humans live on the planet, "especially on the fringes. You can't get any further on the edge than Antarctica."

In her online journal Myers asked this question to herself: Why does Antarctica matter? Her photographs try to answer that question on two levels.

"On one hand, Antarctica matters because it's the most unspoiled pristine landscape we have left on the planet ... and it's awe-invoking because it invokes what preceded human life and what will eventually succeed it," she explained. "On the other hand, the science is important, and I loved meeting scientists and photographing everything from astronomy at Pole to [microscopic algae] under the sea ice."

Joan Myers

Joan Myers has been busy preparing her photographs for a traveling exhibit, as well as putting together a book of Antarctic images. "Wondrous Cold: An Antarctic Journey," is scheduled to premiere at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in May 2006.

Returning to work behind the lens hasn't been easy since her visit to Antarctica in the summer of 2002-03.

"It's been hard to photograph after Antarctica," she said. "The place is so powerful and the experience of photographing there so all-involving that everything else has seemed unimportant by comparison."

Myers said she originally wanted to come to Antarctica because she's always been interested in how humans live on the planet, "especially on the fringes. You can't get any further on the edge than Antarctica."

In her online journal Myers asked this question to herself: Why does Antarctica matter? Her photographs try to answer that question on two levels.

"On one hand, Antarctica matters because it's the most unspoiled pristine landscape we have left on the planet ... and it's awe-invoking because it invokes what preceded human life and what will eventually succeed it," she explained. "On the other hand, the science is important, and I loved meeting scientists and photographing everything from astronomy at Pole to [microscopic algae] under the sea ice."

Lucy Jane Bledsoe

A book on armchair travel to Antarctica for youngsters, "How to Survive in Antarctica," is one of three books author Lucy Jane Bledsoe has written based on her two trips to Antarctica in 1999-2000 and 2003-04.

"The most difficult thing in writing about Antarctica is to express the place without overwriting. The place is so grand and beautiful, it seems to defy good writing," she said. "My hope has been to let that expansiveness and beauty infuse all my work without addressing it directly. That's why I like to write fiction, or narrative nonfiction ... as opposed to exposition."

"How to Survive in Antarctica," which should be out before the end of the year, afforded Bledsoe an opportunity to take a different tact from other kids' books about Antarctic history and science. A cross between travelogue and survival guide, the book contains facts about people, Antarctic challenges and her own first-person accounts. It's unique because "there is very little written for children about contemporary life on the Ice," she said.

Other works include a novel, "The Antarctic Scoop," about a young girl who uncovers a plot to ruin the continent, and a non-fiction collection of stories, "The Breath of Seals: Adventures in Fear and Grace."

"This book explores my relationship to the wild, the meaning of fear, and the experience of grace," Bledsoe said of the last book. "The opportunity to experience a place so extreme, and therefore to feel so intimately what it means to be human, can only be a good thing for a writer."

The following is an excerpt from the kids' book, "How to Survive in Antarctica":

Antarctic Challenge: How to Use the Bucket

The bathroom facilities in most field camps are quite primitive. At Cape Royds, there's a bucket. Yep, just a bucket sitting in the open air.

So there you are with the wind howling at 30 miles an hour bringing a wind chill of - 20? F. You're wearing five layers of clothing: long underwear, a fleece jumpsuit, a fleece sweater, wind pants with suspenders, and a down parka. You have at least three big problems. One, getting all those layers of clothes off (the jumpsuit and suspenders are major obstacles). Two, making sure your clothes don't blow away in that wind. Three, not freezing to death. If you're modest, you have a fourth problem: Nothing shields the bucket from view of other people and the penguins.

Here's what you do. First, find a few rocks and set them next to the bucket. As you strip off your layers, place them under the rocks so they don't blow away. Use the bucket fast. Get dressed very fast. To not get dangerously cold, you need to do all this in ten seconds or less. Good luck.

Think you're finished? Not so fast. All human waste is flown back to the United States so that the continent does not get contaminated. So before retreating to the warmth of your tent, you have to carry the bucket over to a big barrel and empty it. It's best to wait for a moment when the wind isn't gusting.

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