The Stellar Axis

California artist Lita Albuquerque journeyed to Antartica to create an artwork rooted in the stars.

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Stellar Axis: Antarctica
View of Mt. Erebus, Ross Ice Shelf
photo: Lita Albuquerque

“In 1992, when I was in New Zealand, I could really sense the gravitational pull of Antarctica,” says Lita Albuquerque, a Los Angeles artist who finds inspiration from contemplating the cosmos and our connection to it. “I suddenly felt I wanted to do a project at both poles, North and South.” One day she envisioned the light of the stars shining down at both ends and how the axis of the earth was like a chakra spinning through the human body. At the time it seemed a pipe dream–to trek where the rare few have gone, and to make an art installation there, no less.

Now, half of her dream has become reality. Last December, Albuquerque and her team of four flew to Antarctica, to McMurdo Station on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. On a frozen expanse they placed blue spheres in a pattern that replicated the sky overhead during the Summer Solstice, in a project called Stellar Axis: Antarctica. “The experience being out there,” says Albuquerque, nearly breathless as she recalls that magical journey, “with this intense blue with the white ice, which is blue anyway and the blue sky-it was wild.”

Born in Santa Monica, Albuquerque attributes her deep-seated feelings for the earth and sky to being raised in Tunisia, where there was so much open earth and sky surrounding her. When she was 11, she returned with her family to live in the U.S. In the 1970s she began creating installations and earthworks that have carved her a place in California’s Light and Space movement. In 1996, she represented the U.S. at the International Cairo Biennale with a work titled Sol Star, which won the Cairo Biennale Prize. In that work, she poured pools of powdered blue pigment onto the sands of the Giza Plateau, before the famous pyramids, in 10-foot circles, to replicate the major constellations in the Northern Hemisphere sky. Eventually, the desert winds blew the pigment away, in keeping with the ephemeral nature of her earthworks.

In addition to having numerous shows of her prints, photo montages, and installations, Albuquerque has been highly successful winning public art commissions. Over the last decade, she has made work for Gannett Publishers in McLean, Va.; the Evo De Concini Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz.; the Central Library in Palos Verdes, Calif.; the Saitama Guest Center in Saitama, Tokyo; the Library of Foreign Studies at Tokyo University in Japan; and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The latter, designed in conjunction with architect Robert Kramer, is a star map and fountain in the entry plaza of the church.

Her largest commission to date has been for the state capitol. Golden State, conceived with architect Mitchell De Jarnett, is a plaza spanning two city blocks at the Capitol Area East End Complex in Sacramento, comprised of an amphitheater and a stretch of sculpture and undulating landscape.

“I’m driven by images or phrases,” says the artist. “When I started to think I wanted to do a star alignment on both poles, an image came to me: it’s about the alignment of the entire planet.” While Albuquerque is reluctant to sound too New Agey about her work, she does suggest her project has an element of sympathetic magic–an ancient idea in which one creates relationships through making corresponding drawings, structures or actions. Ancient earthworks and cave paintings in Europe and the Americas, for example, are thought to have this purpose.

Albuquerque started investigating a trip to the South Pole and faced enormous cost and logistical hurdles. Commercial trips cost $10,000 per person or more and weren’t set up to go where she wanted to go or haul the equipment she needed. Three years ago, she met filmmaker Sophie Pegrum, who told her about the Antarctica Artists and Writers Program run by the National Science Foundation, a government agency that oversees American research programs at the Poles. After a long and arduous application process, Albuquerque finally got her approval letter last July, a singular coup since hers was the largest team ever given the go-ahead since the program’s inception in the 1980s.

During the austral summer (the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere), some 1,100 to 1,200 people are working at McMurdo Station, the largest of the three U.S. research stations in Antarctica. A third are researchers conducting various scientific projects, while two-thirds provide logistical support to the running of the station and assisting them. Each year about five art projects are included, says Kim Silverman, the program officer in charge of the Artists and Writers Program, and these are usually comprised of one to two persons.

“The agency sees a lot of value in having artists and writers go down there and do work which they can bring back to share with a wider public,” says Silverman. “It helps showcase our work there and why the continent is so important to the planet. With global warming such ahuge topic of concern and interest, the poles are especially good places to look at that.”

Other artists chosen were Xavier Cortada and David Ruth, and award-winning filmmakers Werner Herzog and Anne Aghion. Even the noted Herzog, known for his feature films (“Grizzly Man,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), only brought a cinematographer along.

Before the final approval, Albuquerque had been meeting with her team for two years, the principals being Pegrum and astronomer Simon Balm. Photographer Jean de Pomereu and cinematographer Lionel Cousin later joined them. During the expedition, each member pitched in to do everything from hauling the spheres out to the site to fixing them in place.

While Albuquerque had originally wanted to do the project at the South Pole itself, facilities there are extremely limited. So it was Balm, with a year’s experience in McMurdo when he helped install a radio telescope there in the mid-1990s, who suggested that location instead. Balm also helped the artist identify 99 of the brightest stars overhead during the Summer Solstice, which would occur during their stay. The plan was to have spheres painted ultramarine blue (Albuquerque’s signature color) representing these stars and arranged accordingly on the ground.

While Styrofoam spheres were used during planning stages, the material is banned in Antarctica, where the United States adheres to strict self-imposed environmental regulations. “Everything taken in must be taken out,” says Balm. “And everything placed outside must be able to withstand a hurricane-force storm. Styrofoam can’t do that. It will break up into little pieces and fly around.” They decided to use light and sturdy fiberglass and found a local manufacturer willing to work on the unusual order, Performance Composites in Torrance.

During discussions with the NSF it became clear that Albuquerque would not be able to ship 99 spheres to Antarctica, which would have been too bulky. So they decided to fabricate hemispheres and assemble the halves in position. That way, the pieces could be shipped nestled in one another, cutting the shipping bulk from 650 to 200 cubic feet. The spheres were made in seven sizes, corresponding to their luminosity. Only one, made to represent Sirius, the “Dog Star” in the constellation Canis Major, would be in the largest category, at 4’ in diameter. Half of the total were the smallest stars, represented by spheres 10” in diameter.

Such ambitious projects don’t come cheaply. Under the grant, the government flew the team from Los Angeles to Christ Church, New Zealand, then on to McMurdo Station. In Christ Church, each participant was outfitted with proper gear to withstand freezing temperatures. Upon arrival in McMurdo, each was trained in survival m
ethods. The NSF covers the cost of housing and food at the station. However, housing in Christ Church was up to participants, and so were camera, film, and other personal equipment. Of course, Albuquerque also had to pay for the hardware of her installation, and about $150,000 went to the fabrication of the spheres.

Part of that cost is being raised by sale of the spheres, which were brought back. Each is named after the star it represents and priced according to size. “You can hang one or a group of them on the wall,” says Albuquerque. And the beauty is that it’s not only sculpture, she points out, it will be part of a historical installation, with a pedigree of having traveled to a place where few have ever set foot.

Things went smoothly during the initial stages. Then it took a couple of days to find the right site, which ended up being 15 miles away. Soon it became apparent they could not work as rapidly as expected, given the logistics of hauling the spheres to the site, properly anchoring them to the ground, and assembling them. For example, they had six crates, which could be transported only one at a time, and each trip took two to three hours. Thus, in the end their stay was extended from three to five weeks. The good part was that Albuquerque and her team were able to leave the installation in place for two weeks, rather than just one day, as originally slated.

Spanning some 400 square feet, Stellar Axis: Antarctica was a constellation of intense blue orbs against the snowy white landscape, nearly the opposite of what we see at night, when stars shine brightly against a dark sky. The regal Mount Erebus rose in the distance.

Despite working in ECW-government shorthand for Extreme Cold Weather-the weather cooperated. “We were really lucky,” she says. “It was minus 20, but that was really mild for Antarctica. We had everything that we wanted: we had blue sky when we were putting it up, we had snow when we wanted to get rid of all the foot tracks.”

On December 22, the day of the Solstice, they gathered 51 volunteers from the station to go out to the site. From a central point, the participants walked outwards in a spiral mirroring the movement of the stars overhead. All along the way, Albuquerque and her team documented the process with still and moving pictures, shooting from the air when given use of a helicopter.

Now comes the sharing of Albuquerque’s exhilarating experience: public presentations, exhibitions, books, and films. The first exhibition up is at the Fresno Art Museum (June 29-September 19). Last year the museum had wanted to salute her with a Distinguished Woman Artist award, but scheduling conflicts prevented the artist from coming. When they heard about her Stellar Axis project, as well as her teaching at the California State University at Fresno’s summer art program, they decided to give her a show instead.

“Her ideas are so thrilling,” says Jacqueline Pilar, the museum’s curator. “In connecting our earth to the galaxy, it makes me think of wonderful projects like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.” She refers to the ancient buildings designed by the Native Americans to serve as astronomical observatories and calendars. “What Lita has done is to reach to that level, speaking to man’s relationship to the earth and to the stars. It’s also very beautiful, those aquamarine balls on the snow.”

There will be a series of Pegrum’s photographs lining a corridor and an installation by Albuquerque in a gallery. In the gallery will be a selection of spheres positioned upon a bed of salt, to evoke snow, and images of the expedition projected onto the wall.

Other places to see Albuquerque’s work this summer are group shows at George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles and Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach. This fall she will have a solo show at Joan Hentschell Gallery in Des Moines, Iowa. Looking to the next year, the indefatigable artist is busily trying to get permission to do an installation at Paris’ Place de la Concorde, during the all-city celebration of La Nuit Blanche in October.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Web, those interested can view the stunning images and the poetic words of Albuquerque’s Polar expedition at www.stellaraxis.com. She touches upon the sublime when she shares her thoughts upon placing their first star, Sirius, in the snow on December 14, a week after they arrived in Antarctica:

As we look at this perfect blue sphere in the middle of the whiteness with the light of the sun, at one o’clock in the morning, a sun which feels should come from another direction, the reason we had all come to the other end of the world to do this, becomes obvious right here in front of our eyes… Perhaps it does indeed have to do with the alignment to the star Sirius, there is a resonance that occurs that is mysterious and indescribable, I feel that is all we need, this one object in the middle of space, as if it has always been there, and should always be there, as an anchor, anchoring us to the earth and to the stars.

—SCARLET CHENG