Artistry Under the Ice

Posted August 29th, 2016 at 12:04 pm (UTC-5)
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Deep within Amundsen-Scott South Pole station lies the entrance to the ice tunnels– a serpentine network of narrow passages and catacombs carved deep beneath the frozen polar plateau.

The ice tunnels meander underground for nearly a kilometer. The lighting is dim, the floor slick and the artwork outstanding. (Photo: R. Klein)

The ice tunnels meander underground for nearly a kilometer. The lighting is dim, the floor slick and the artwork outstanding. (Photo: R. Klein)

Starting from just outside the station’s power plant, they run for nearly a kilometer at a gently descending grade until they reach their terminus 24 meters below ground–the entrance of the Rodwell, the station’s fresh water drinking supply.

Through these tunnels run heavily insulated pipes that carry fresh water to the station, waste heat to the Rodwell and sewage to the outfall.  They are also home to the world’s oldest permanent installation of South Pole artwork.  Along their shear vertical walls, one encounters rectangular shelves of varying dimensions that have been cut into the ice using chainsaws and primitive hand tools.  They range in volume from that of a tissue box to a twin-size mattress.  Each acts as a pedestal, frame or diorama box for a single piece of artistry.

 

From found object and Dada, to Surrealism and pop, the installations that adorn the ice tunnels cover a wide range of expression and theme.  The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012 (Artist Unknown) sits with its lid askew, tempting the viewer to look inside.

The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012-- a perplexing piece. (Photo: R. Klein)

The Last Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream from 2012– a perplexing piece. (Photo: R. Klein)

Is The Last Tub a story of hardship–a winter endured with a limited supply of frozen custards–or does it symbolize polar gluttony, asking the viewer to reflect on the quantity of sugary treats the modern Antarctic explorer consumes? It is the first piece one encounters in the ice tunnels, and perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial from a curatorial perspective.

Acting as a foil to The Last Tub is the Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter (Artist and date Unknown). It is a 25 centimeter mixed-media sculpture depicting a humanoid figure in front of a headstone twice its size.

A visitor to the Ice Tunnels takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of The Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter. (Photo: R. Klein)

A visitor to the Ice Tunnels takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of The Tomb of the Unknown Carpenter. (Photo: R. Klein)

Built from broken saws, battery brackets and chains, the totem stands erect, arms outstretched, challenging the observer with its presence.  It is the physicality of man in the face of adversity, in the face of a cold death.  It is a piece purpose-built for its icy surroundings—the relational aesthetics exact—forcing viewers to contemplate the immediate dangers that surround them, and the high probability of losing an ear, toe or finger to frostbite by the time they leave the exhibit.

Werner Herzog's Greatest Hits--one of the most popular pieces in the Ice Tunnel's permanent collection. How a whole intact sturgeon was smuggled into the South Pole is a question that keeps many "Winter Overs" up at night. (Photo: R. Klein)

Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits–one of the most popular pieces in the Ice Tunnel’s permanent collection. How a whole intact sturgeon was smuggled into the South Pole is a question that keeps many “Winter Overs” up at night. (Photo: R. Klein)

Moving onwards, the creativity and vision continue to pump like the music at an Ibiza night club: a one-meter long sturgeon titled Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits, a hyper-realistic bust of polar explorer Roald Amundsen carved from a block of ice, a surreal scene of multi-colored, plastic toy ponies and horses grazing and frolicking in a golden world.

By the time visitors complete their underground tour of MOMA Antarctica, they will have viewed nearly a dozen pieces, each one exceptional and singularly unique—a purposefully and perfectly dysfunctional collection of the South Pole’s most profound thoughts and questions, and the creativity inspired by cold, dark months at the bottom of the world.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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