ERIKA BLUMENFELD/THE POLAR PROJECT
The Arctic and Antarctica are part of our cultural and world heritage, and The Polar Project’s mission is to document the natural environment of these precious regions to preserve their image for future generations.
STATEMENT: From recording light to documenting Antarctica
Since I can remember, I’ve been preoccupied with all things relating to the physics of light and natural phenomena. The extraordinary events which had to occur in order for us to even have a universe, a planet and a habitable natural environment is an unending source of inspiration to me, and has been the vantage point from which I set forth making art. Specifically, these interests have led me to investigate the physics of light as both medium and subject. My intent is to explore and document the subtle shifts in atmospheric, astronomic and environmental phenomena, and to record light’s footprint throughout the daily and seasonal cycles such as dawn and dusk, the solstices and equinoxes, and the waxing and waning of our moon.
I have pursued these interests within the photographic medium more than 20 years, but in 1998 I came to the understanding that I should relinquish the traditional methods and results of photography. This culminated in my developing a method that reduces photography down to its most basic ingredients: light and light sensitive material. For more than a decade, I have built my own camera-like devices, which photograph, or record, only the natural light itself—what is captured on film is the direct imprint of the quantity and quality of the sunlight or moonlight that was present at the moment the exposure was taken.
By adopting a somewhat scientific methodology, my artistic practice has led me to follow a rather non-traditional studio practice. My “studio” is almost always outside under the open sky, where the natural light pervades. On occasion, my process has led me to work alongside institutions in order to further my knowledge of a particular field of scientific study. In 2001, I worked at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where I studied the mystifying marine bioluminescence that glow in our oceans at night in order to determine if it would be possible to create a living installation of these increasingly rare creatures. In 2004, I worked at the McDonald Observatory in far West Texas and documented a full lunar cycle through an altered telescope and produced my first video installation.
During my time at the McDonald Observatory, my artistic direction took a radical turn. Night after night, looking up at the universe through the intensely dark and unpolluted sky, I considered how few people around the world have the opportunity to look up and see the stars, planets and constellations so clearly and be witness to their profound beauty. These thoughts led me to reflect on the historical versus contemporary relationship between our natural environment and our civilization. While our technologies have, stunningly, allowed us to see into the microcosm of our bodies and the macrocosm of our universe, we are facing a moment where our technologies are also aiding in certain destabilizing effects to our earth, our water and our air.
The stark polarity of positive and negative attributes intrinsic to technological advancement is a compelling place for me as an artist to begin exploring humanity’s relationship to Earth’s environment. If one lives in a rural area on Earth, one might experience the amazing daily expression of the sky like some experience television: as a place from which to begin to understand the world and behold its treasures and its tragedies. In urban areas of the Earth, however, the subtle shifts in sunlight and moonlight and the ever-changing sky may go unnoticed as lifestyle paces quicken, as pollution modifies our atmosphere, and as the once night skies are imbued with artificial light. In August 2007, I read in The New Yorker that in the time of Galileo the Milky Way was so bright in our then unpolluted skies that it would literally cast a person’s shadow onto the ground—how much things have changed! While I had not previously considered myself a political artist, I have realized that my love of the natural environment makes it impossible for me to continue to make art without dealing with the environmental issues we are currently facing globally.
Since the autumn 2004, I have been pursuing a profoundly different approach to my art-making practice. My new work, The Polar Project, is a series of large-scale environment-focused artworks that document the environment of the Arctic and Antarctica. Arguably the two most fragile, if severe, places on Earth, the Arctic and Antarctica are crucial to humanity’s future and Earth’s stability. Continued climate change and glacial melting will affect vast numbers of people worldwide bringing unprecedented challenges to all of humanity. Yet, the remoteness of the North and South Polar Regions means that very few people have access to the Polar environment, and therefore most of Earth’s population have never experienced its remarkable nature.
In late January 2009 I initiated The Polar Project and went to Antarctica as the artist-in-residence and official team member of ITASC (Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation) and the guest of the South African National Antarctic Program. Atop a nunatak (rock mountain) in the Ahlmann Ridge Range in the Queen Maud Land area of Eastern Antarctica, I lived and worked on the ice for four weeks. During my residency, I created several new bodies of work including installations from the ongoing series Light Recordings, as well as new lens-based video pieces and photographs.
My expedition to Antarctica brought a world before my eyes that was luminous, mutable and challenging. To experience its extraordinary nature, one grasps at words and images as if they are tethers to some known understanding. Though the continent in truth eludes all traces of itself, the human imaginings of it are in fact crucial to its survival—we now holds the health of Earth’s ice caps in our hands. As humans, we learn through personal experience: it is how we gain knowledge and insight, and what motivates us to cultivate informed choices. An experience with the Polar Regions would result in a sense of connection with, and greater understanding of, their unique and rare environment and their subsequent vulnerability to climate change. The Arctic and Antarctica are a part of our cultural and world heritage, and my mission with The Polar Project is to capture the natural environment of these precious regions to preserve their image and voice for future generations and to inspire awareness and change now.