Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gearing up in New Zealand

In a few hours we will leave New Zealand and head south to Antarctica. We’ll board a US Air Force plane with some National Science Foundation sponsored scientists and leave Christchurch, the city that has served as the launching pad of many Antarctic expeditions. Five hours later, we’ll land in U.S. McMurdo Station --near the camp used by the legendary Antarctic explorers, Scott and Shackleton.

Scott left Christchurch in his expedition to the South Pole, arriving only to find disillusionment and a Norwegian flag flying there. Amundsen had beaten him by a month, becoming the first to reach the South Pole. On their return trip, Scott and his men died of hypothermia, trapped inside their tents. Not far from our hotel here on Cathedral Square stands a statue honoring the Englishman's courage, it was sculpted by his widow.

Earlier today we were at the United States Antarctic Program Clothes Distribution Center trying on our garb, clothes strange to a Miamian’s touch: parkas, boots, thermal underwear, goggles, gloves, mitts, and other extreme weather outfits the team had put together for us. Stranger yet, was how easy this journey has been made for us especially when I compare it to the journey of those who opened that last frontier to us and the suffering they endured.

An exhibit at a local historical museum here in Christchurch chronicles the various expeditions to the South Pole: Starting with Captain Cook, who sailed through icebergs in the South Seas in an attempt to prove or disprove the existence of an Antarctic continent, but never found it. Ending with Shackleton, who firmly set foot across the continent and came 97 miles from being the first to reach the South Pole, before being forced to return. He got farther then than is his first attempt when an accident temporarily disabled him and knocked him off Scott expedition. Shackleton's third expedition was to traverse the Antarctic continent, but that too failed. His ship, the Endurance, was caught in an ice floe and eventually crushed by the ice. Their two year saga through ice and sea ended with no casualties, but a lot of improvisation and courage.

In a few days, I will put on an extra heavy layer of that clothing I tried on today and get on an airplane and fly to the South Pole where I will create some temporary art installations. These installations will focus on our relationship to each other and our planet—how we see ourselves and deal with the environment, climate change, the passage of time.

One piece will honor those who came before us. This one is meant to stay there permanently: In the airplane, I am bringing a portrait I am painting of Shackleton. I will hang the painting in the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, built in no small part because of the perseverence of men like him. Through this piece, conceptually, I aim to finally bring him to a place that so eluded him in life.


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