Should Antarctica Play Host to Artists?

At first, sending a commune of artists to the ice sounds insane. But it might not be such a bad idea.

Argentine Antarctic research station.

An Argentine Antarctic research station.


Next March, amid the ongoing gentrification in other parts of the planet, a group of artists, journalists, and entrepreneurs will board a ship, the Akademik Ioffe, and sail together to Antarctica. When the 100 or so participants get there (the full list will be announced in December), they will spend several days crafting artwork on the frozen continent.

This expedition, called the “Antarctic Biennale” is being pitched as “an international socio-cultural phenomenon” by one Alexander Ponomarev, a retired Russian submariner turned conceptual artist-philosopher. Ponomarev is known for provocative video installations and performances that draw on his years of sea travel—including a “Stored in Ice” solo gallery exhibit this year that examines his quest for “preserving cultural memory” in the Antarctic Circle. An open call for applications to come aboard the journey was announced in early August.

Don’t get too caught up in the details, which are still a bit hazy. Focus on this: Antarctica, which as recently as the moon landing was virtually off-limits to people like you and me, will soon host its own contemporary art exhibition. The current plan is for the artists to construct installations in Antarctica that will be documented and removed, and then to show some of the works later in Venice. The culturati have officially reached the end of the world.

I’ve actually visited Antarctica more than a dozen times in recent years, both as a researcher and as a guide on the same ship the artists will take. I was initially skeptical of the Antarctic Biennale concept; should we really send artists to this fragile ecosystem for little more than entertainment? It’s easy to scoff at this kind of idea, and Ponomarev’s project—which has been in the planning stages for at least five years—comes with legitimate reasons for criticism: Its curator quit in August after discovering that Ponomarev intends to limit the competition to artists aged 35 and under. (Organizers quickly clarified that the age limit was intended to “give young/undiscovered artists a chance to be heard as a voice of [the] future.”)

So what’s the point of a bunch of artists staging “performances” in a place with no audience? Carbon-footprint counters are quick to point out that saving the planet isn’t helped by wasting energy traipsing all over it. Besides, isn’t there any place on the planet anymore that is free from human disturbance?

Actually, not really. Even without these artists, Antarctica has become more of a frontier of adventure tourism than scientific discovery: In the days before these artists embark, the same ship will host a group of runners hoping to finish a marathon on the seventh continent, each of whom paid at least $7,000 two years in advance for the privilege. Before the runners arrive, the ship will cater to well-to-do whale watchers with champagne toasts and yoga classes. Antarctica is open to anybody with the desire and means to go; there is no annual limit to the number of tourists allowed and no entry fees. Any means tour operators take to try to minimize the environmental impact—with rules against littering, staying too long, disturbing wildlife, collecting specimens, damaging historic sites, introducing non-native plants or animals, and the like—are all voluntary. Today’s Scotts and Shackletons have to set their sights elsewhere, like Mars.

But Antarctica, which has no culture of its own, could sure use some. Think about it: A touch of rarified artistic rendering of what we have to lose there could be the best defense against the outright exploitation, environmental degradation, and manifest destiny hovering around our polar regions, as they become increasingly accessible. If wealthy patrons who value contemporary art can get interested in penguins and icebergs, so much the better. Who else has the clout to prevent strip mining the last pristine continent?

The Antarctic Treaty, first signed in 1959 and now recognized by more than 50 countries, prohibits nuclear explosions, radioactive waste, and military operations, and sets aside the coldest, highest, windiest, driest, and iciest continent as a place for cooperative science—an extraordinary agreement from the Cold War era. No nation owns any part of Antarctica, though seven countries have staked territories. This treaty will be up for review in 2048, and already there are murmurs that some signatories—such as China, which lately has been building new research stations on the continent—will press for mining rights and other changes when that happens, if they wait even that long.

The aesthetics of polar exploration have inspired us since Captain Cook first pierced the Antarctic Circle in 1773, returning with tales of a region so uninhabitable that he predicted “no man will ever venture further south than I have done.” Early expeditions brought along artists and photographers to document the desolate beauty of the landscape—stark, unforgiving, and exquisite. Something about its vast emptiness appeals to our thirst for the unknown.

Alexander Ponomarev believes the white continent resembles “a blank sheet of paper” on which to sketch lofty ideas. He’s actually not the first to dispatch artists on modern missions to the south. For many years, the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program of the National Science Foundation has been sending down American artists to work on projects “to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation” of scientific work; past recipients of the NSF grant have included filmmaker Werner Herzog and author Barry Lopez. Other countries have instituted their own programs, including the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship and New Zealand’s Artists to Antarctica Programme, which also focus on interpreting scientific research.

We often assume that the steady encroachment of humanity will spoil what’s left of the world’s wilderness, but Antarctica bucks the trend: A hundred years ago, the territory was dominated by sealers, whalers, and pole grabbers who slaughtered wildlife for profit and scattered their trash everywhere, while today, with few exceptions, Antarctica is visited by committed scientists and tourists who so far have been respectful. A little culture wouldn’t hurt, and could actually help focus attention on serious environmental issues.

The booming Antarctic tourist trade hasn’t really hurt the continent, which remains one of the most pristine areas on the planet. But the impact of humans in other places is being felt there. Today’s biggest issue is global climate change, which threatens to collapse ice sheets, melt sea ice and glaciers, dislocate penguins, and upset the marine food chains of the southern ocean. That’s going to happen whether we let people walk on the continent or not.

Antarctica has been able to maintain its mystique for longer than most places. Perhaps a concerted artistic look at this mystique could offer new arguments for its preservation—and for the preservation of the world as a whole. After all, Antarctica will not be saved if we simply stay away from it. The continent’s future depends, as all of ours does, on slowing and reversing climate change. To do that, we need to be inspired.