FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, which means most of us also live under streetlights, divorced from the night sky. Disconnect yourself from the stars and you lose sense of living on a planet, a small body in space. Lose track of your limitations and you no longer know where you live, which makes it increasingly unlikely you will know how precarious the human condition can become on Earth. Lita Albuquerque is seeking to counter this loss by reconnecting us to the sky the old-fashioned way — through ceremonial art.
The Antarctic is the logical place for her to have started.
Tom Griffiths, an Australian historian who visited the Antarctic in 2002–2003, put it this way in his book Slicing the Silence: “In Antarctica you are intensely aware of the celestial Earth.” The continent is not simply “the end of the Earth,” he says, but “a place from which to intellectually encompass the planet and a privileged human window on the universe.” Albuquerque’s large-scale installation Stellar Axis: Antarctica is the first artwork to fully take advantage of that privilege. It is part one of a two-part planetwide project meant to do a simple thing that bears complex results: remind us that the stars continue to shine during daylight and connect heaven to earth, or spirit to matter.
The Antarctic’s Ross Ice Shelf is the largest single piece of ice in the world, a flat expanse the size of Spain and up to a thousand feet thick. Albuquerque found herself standing there amid ninety-nine ultramarine spheres at midnight during the austral solstice of 2006. That would be winter in the north, but summer in the Antarctic. And that would be daylight here, not nighttime. She and her four teammates were working fifteen miles out from McMurdo, the largest base on the continent, where they installed the spheres, representing the ninety-nine stars of greatest magnitude in the Southern Hemisphere.
Albuquerque credits her fascination with the celestial vault to growing up in Carthage. She was boarded there in a Catholic convent and in the evenings would watch the stars rise and set over the twin horizons of the north African desert and the dark waters of the Mediterranean. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1968 with a degree in art history and a fascination with ancient rock art and ceremonial sites. By 1978 she was strewing rocks and dry pigments across the floor of the Mojave Desert, early versions of her constellation pieces. In 1980 she turned the Washington Monument into the gnomon of a giant sundial in the nation’s capital, and in 1996 she created a star field around the pyramids of Egypt, alluding to their astronomical orientation. The Stellar Axis operation is her most ambitious project to date.
Two specific ideas compelled Albuquerque to create Stellar Axis. First, by mirroring constellations on the ground, her project would remind us that the stars are always with us, no matter how obscured by the position of the Earth. She would reverse the figure-to-ground relationship of stars to sky at solstice. The white ice would become the black sky, the dark blue spheres the light of shining stars.
Her other idea was based on what we call diurnal motion: as the Earth rotates west to east, the stars seem to move in the opposite direction. If you are standing in the Northern Hemisphere, the stars appear to rotate counterclockwise around the Pole Star. If you are standing in the Southern Hemisphere, they appear to rotate in a clockwise direction. If you imagine light from the two apparent motions meeting in the center of the Earth, the geometrical figure created would be a double helix, a spiral with a constant diameter like a strand of DNA. Albuquerque visualized this helix as a metaphor for information passed down over time, whether through the light of stars or through our genes.
She enlisted the help of Simon Balm, an astrophysicist who had worked previously at the South Pole. Simon had the math skills and field experience to transfer the positions of the stars into an accurate configuration on the ice. The artist and astrophysicist were joined by photographer Jean de Pomereu, filmmaker Sophie Pegrum, and cinematographer Lionel Cousin, all of whom would document the event but also help install the spheres representing the stars.
Their preparations took more than two years. In order to pull off such a large project in the Antarctic, it was necessary to obtain the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which administers America’s science operations on the ice as well as projects by visiting artists and writers. Albuquerque’s challenge was to piggyback her team and materials onto the existing stream of supplies for the scientists. It’s a cost-effective strategy for the government, relatively friendly to the environment, but a nightmare to implement.
For example, Albuquerque’s spheres had to be manufactured so that they could be packed in halves, both so they would fit in the available cargo and so they could be reassembled solely by her team under the challenging conditions on the ice shelf. Then snow anchors had to be devised so that the spheres would not blow away and violate Antarctic Treaty provisions regarding waste on the continent. In fact, the NSF required her to subject the spheres to 110-mile-per-hour winds in a test tunnel.
On December 7, Albuquerque and her team, along with a gaggle of scientists, arrived at McMurdo aboard a cargo jet. After a week sorting their gear — and completing the survival courses required before being let loose on the ice — they headed out with the first of their six crates of stars. The NSF had assigned them a four-hundred-foot-diameter plot out near the ice runways, a two-hour drive on snow machines over the ice shelf. The site offered a pristine view of Ross Island and the perpetually steaming Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. It was a sublime place to work during the evenings with the sun only a few degrees above the horizon.
After Albuquerque selected what she thought would make the most aesthetic center for her work, Balm bored out a hole for the first pole with a gasoline-powered drill, then set out the forty-eight-inch sphere representing Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, were it visible. The deep blue sphere seemed to barely touch the ice, to almost float above the surface as if unsure whether it belonged to the sky or the ground.
It was December 14, and the solstice was on the twenty-second. All ninety-eight other “stars,” of descending magnitudes and represented by graduated spheres in seven steps down to ten inches, were aligned from Balm’s hole according to his GPS, the array representing the entire dome of the “night” sky from horizon to horizon. It took the team all nine days to install Stellar Axis, a job that in a more benign environment could have been done in two; but they made it just in time for fifty-one people from McMurdo to troop out on midsummer and gather at the center of the piece.
Albuquerque and Balm had stomped out an Archimedean spiral that wound into the array — the same kind of constant radius spiral found in DNA. Everyone walked along the path for ten minutes until meeting at the endpoint, then walked back out while being filmed from a helicopter, their heavy red parkas in contrast with the dusky blue spheres. At the conclusion, they spontaneously fell backward and made snow angels.
“I can’t help but think that Paleolithic people mirrored stars on the ground,” Albuquerque mused during an interview in Santa Monica one afternoon upon returning. “There’s archeological evidence that they did so in many sites around the world.” It would have been part of their quest for the numinous, the tradition in which she places her work. But her more immediate concern is how she will create the second half of the Stellar Axis project. When Balm drew an imaginary line from their site on the Ross Ice Shelf through the center of the planet, he ended up with a spot just off the coast of Greenland. They can get there, or close enough, on a charter ship, but how to deal with spheres in the water is something she and Balm haven’t yet solved. When they do, and when the other half of this artwork is realized, Albuquerque will have completed one of the largest gestures made by an artist on behalf of the marriage between the constellations and Earth.
For more information, see the artist’s blog.