Scientists are always traveling to the coldest places on the planet. In the Arctic and Antarctica, they brave extreme temperatures and isolation as they probe and analyze.
But why would an artist go to a desolate and dangerous land of ice and snow?
This winter, as cold and snow grip the Capital Region, “BiPolar: Journeys to The Ends of the Earth” at The College of Saint Rose explores regions of the world that most of us will never see — through the eyes of three artists.
Janet Biggs, known for her conceptual work in video, photography and performance, traveled to the Arctic Circle. She sailed on a vintage schooner, crawled into an ice cave and dropped deep into a Norwegian coal mine.
Elise Engler spent two months in Antarctica and documented her journey in a series of paintings and drawings. She camped and hiked and painted outdoors.
Itty S. Neuhaus received a Fulbright Fellowship to work in Labrador and Newfoundland. Her 14-foot-tall multimedia sculpture, made of hand-dyed fish net and rope, hangs from the ceiling of Saint Rose’s Esther Massry Gallery.
’BiPolar: Journeys to the Ends of the Earth’
WHERE: Esther Massry Gallery, The College of Saint Rose, 1002 Madison Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through March 1. Gallery is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday and 12 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Open until 8 p.m. on March 1 for Albany's 1st Friday art night
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 485-3902, www.strose.edu/gallery
Three large-scale photographs by a fourth artist, Subhankar Banerjee, are featured in another smaller exhibit, “Arctic Subtext,” in the hallway next to the gallery entrance.
Banerjee lived 14 months in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and his photos, many of them shot from an airplane, have been shown to Congress.
Two of the “BiPolar” artists shared their adventures in phone conversations with The Sunday Gazette. Here are their stories:
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Video and photos from the Arctic
In 2009, Janet Biggs made her first trip above the Arctic Circle, traveled far above the northern tip of Norway.
“We boarded a two-masted schooner that was built in 1910, and just went north until we couldn’t anymore; we hit too much ice," says Biggs.
In 2010, she sailed on the ship again because, as a photographer and videographer, she hungered to see and do more.
“I was so absolutely in love with the region that I had no way to distance myself and have any kind of analytical or intellectual response to the region,” Biggs says.
And after each 17-day boat trip with a group of artists and scientists, she spent another month or more exploring the Arctic on her own.
In the Massry Gallery, two small dark spaces are set up for viewing “Arctic Trilogy,” her three video works.
In “Fade to White,” shots of a lone kayaker gliding through frigid water alternate with shots of a performance artist, dressed in white, singing haunting Baroque madrigals.
In “Brightness All Around,” Biggs follows a female coal miner deep into the earth.
Biggs, who is 54 and lives in New York City, admits that she can be a thrill seeker at times, and says that danger was part of her Arctic experience.
Once when she was paddling a kayak with a crew member, polar bears jumped off the ice and chased the kayakers until they scared the animals away with flares.
“Sometimes, I would wake up on the ship, and we would have had a night of terror, where the waves were almost as high as our mast. You’re just physically exhausted and bruised.”
In the video “In the Cold Edge,” Biggs shoots a red emergency flare onto the white landscape.
“I could shoot them with abandon because I knew I was too far north,” she says. “No one would ever see them.”
For her second trip, Biggs learned to use a high-powered rifle so she could defend herself against bears.
“When I was there the first year, I always had to be around a guard that was armed. The second time I was certified, and so I did some treks across the landscape by myself.”
The Arctic is both torturous and beautiful, she says.
“There were times when it was just this wind-wracked, desolate, isolating, terrifying landscape that was endless. And then I went back the next year to the exact same location, and there was a soft snow falling and all the sharp edges of the mountains and the threateningly pointy ice had been softened and rounded, and it felt soothing, comforting in an interesting way,” Biggs says.
“That's kind of the wonder for me of the Arctic. Even though I know it’s been mapped and I know that you can get a satellite connection, and you can use a GPS, it still feels like a place of discovery.”
Biggs, who has filmed motorcycle racers on Utah’s salt flats and workers removing poisonous sulfur from an Indonesian volcano, describes herself as “a witness to people doing things that I can’t possibly imagine doing on a regular basis.
“I really want to understand someone who has made a choice to define and defend their sense of self in a region like that. I have a need to understand someone who makes a choice that most of us would find unimaginable.”
To see more video by Janet Biggs, go to www.jbiggs.com. To read more about the Arctic Circle Program, which took her there, see www.thearcticcircle.org.
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Paintings and drawings from Antarctica
‘If I wasn’t an artist, I’d probably be a journalist,” says Elise Engler. “I’m an information gatherer.”
In the winter of 2009-10, when Engler flew more than 9,000 miles to the bottom of the world on a National Science Foundation Antarctica Artists and Writers Program grant, she made hundreds of drawings and paintings that depicted what she did, who she met and what she saw and experienced.
Everything was documented, even the contents of her suitcase.
In the Esther Massry Gallery, two 12-inch wide paper scrolls hang on the wall. The shorter one, 49 inches long, is covered with colored pencil drawings, each about 1 inch high, of items that she brought on the trip, from T-shirts and toothpaste to pills and underwear. On the 60-inch scroll, she drew pictures of every object she brought back home.
And that’s only the beginning. Ten more large paper panels record Antarctic activities with text and many more tiny drawings. We learn about her pretrip visit to the doctor, meet a scientist named Luigi, see a chocolate cake and a scallop shell and “thousands and thousands of Adelie penguins.”
Engler is known for her miniature serial drawings, but at Saint Rose, she was invited to create a landscape of ice and sky that spans one wall of the gallery, and it was painted on-site, with her brush applied directly to that wall. Dozens of small oil-on-panel, diary-like images of her Antarctica trip were then mounted on that backdrop.
It was summer in the Antarctica during her visit, and Engler spent as much time as possible outdoors.
“I like to work from the landscape or the actual object as opposed to a photograph. I just worked outside most of the time and would layer up as I got colder. When my watercolors froze, I knew it was time to quit.”
Sometimes when she was painting, penguins would waddle up to her board, as if they were checking her work.
With McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic Research Center, as her base, Engler flew with scientists to two penguin colonies, the Dry Valleys and the South Pole.
“Everywhere except the South Pole and McMurdo Station, I stayed in a mountaineering tent,” she says.
“Dry Valleys is the tiny percentage of Antarctica where there is very little snow. Part of the reason there is a lot of research going on there is because it’s exposed,” she says.
In Cape Royds, at one of the penguin colonies, she was permitted to visit the cabin of legendary explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton.
She spent a couple of days at Cape Crozier, observing more penguins.
“It was the open sea, and you could watch the penguins swimming and diving in the water. I actually saw a leopard seal attack a penguin.”
Engler, who is 56 and lives in Manhattan, wasn’t intimidated by the idea of spending time in Antarctica.
“I’m pretty adventurous by nature,” she says.
When she was in her twenties, she backpacked in Alaska.
“We were in Denali for a month. I was living in a two-person tent where there were bears. We didn’t see another person for three weeks.”
As an artist, she sees her role as providing information to the viewer.
“I am interested in how I’m allowed behind the scenes. This work documents what it’s like to be an artist amid scientists in Antarctica. One of the scientists I worked with was a Sicilian. He was researching microbes in ponds and lakes.”
Antarctica was a sensory adventure, too.
“You don’t hear birds,” she says. “There really is no wildlife unless you are on the edges, so there really are no animal sounds, unless you are in a penguin colony. There’s no plant life, so there’s no such thing as a leaf rustling. The sound is the wind, that’s it.”
At the South Pole, the temperature was minus 40, but at McMurdo, the thermometer hit 31 degrees above zero.
“It basically hovered around freezing or a little below. But it’s also 24 hours of sun. So when the sun is out, there’s a kind of warmth to it,” Engler says.
The sky would change, there would be clouds, but always it was daylight.
“It’s never, never night, not even for a minute.”
For more about artist Elise Engler and her Antarctica adventure, go to www.eliseengler.com, where you can see her video of penguins. You can also see more Antarctic work in a solo show, “Travel/Log,” through Feb. 10, at the Robert Henry Contemporary gallery in Brooklyn.