Thursday, February 5, 2009

Erika Blumenfeld on The Polar Project

Erika Blumenfeld is probably best known for her Light Recordings – direct "pictures" of light.  Using special equipment of her own design, she sequences exposures at particular times of day and night, and during specific phases of the sun and moon, such as solstices and equinoxes.  The individual images have a gradated minimalist look, often blending from deep ultramarine on one edge to white on the opposite edge, and are usually presented in series of unframed panels, sometimes laid out in large grids.  She also makes videos of astronomical cycles.  Erika is a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

I caught up with Erika, via email, at SANAE IV Station, in Antarctica, where she is working on The Polar Project, her ambitious environment-based installation series.  Our interview will be serialized on this blog over the next few days.

JW:  You have been experimenting with photography for some time – at least as long as I've known you, which is fifteen years.  How would you say your work has changed over time?

EB:  I feel my work has changed significantly since then.  At that time, my interests were quite different – I was looking at the world as I saw it around me, and capturing that on film as representational imagery.  A photo of a tree was a photo of a tree – I didn't question it beyond that.  As I reflect on it now, I realize I was simply starting with what I was familiar with.  About ten years ago, however, I was motivated to start asking some provoking questions, like "what is the function of a photograph?" and "If you take a photograph of a tree, what part of that tree do you lose in the photographic translation of it that you maintain in the experience of it?"  I immediately had to discontinue working in the same way I once had, mainly documenting my tangible surroundings, and began instead to document light itself.  Reducing my subject and medium to light offered a set of questions I'm still answering through this body of work.  My new project in the Arctic and Antarctic is initiating an entirely fresh path that is still unfolding as I move toward it.

JW:  Your methodology has lead you to make rigorously timed exposures up mountains and in deserts at all times of the day and night.  Tell us about one or two of your more interesting experiences in the field before The Polar Project.

EB:  There are some funny moments from my Light Recordings shoots.  Just before we started shooting the "Winter Solstice" piece in 2000 at dawn, the temperature was 10º F and the film was freezing.  In the end I had one of my assistants in a sleeping bag with all the boxes of Polaroid film at the bottom of the bag, and she kept them warm with her body heat.  It was also interesting to actually take an exposure every minute for the entire day.  There is so much "time" within a single minute – shooting this work, and others after it, has made me reflect on the strangeness of how time moves.

More recently, I was shooting a moon piece out on my land in Marfa, and after holding my film toward the sky for the two minute exposure, I looked around me and saw that I was completely surrounded by a small herd of cows.  They just stood there looking at me – quite hilarious.

My most favorite memory, though, is when I was working up at the McDonald Observatory making my first video installation.  Just being up on that mountain, looking at the stars every night under such a clear dark sky – truly sublime.

When I first start making the work, the impulse to follow a particular course in order to capture a phenomenon doesn't consider what it will take to actually accomplish it, and so I find myself having to do some fairly unusual things in order to complete the recordings.  This trip to Antarctica is probably the best example of that.

JW:  How did you find yourself planning a trip to Antarctica?

EB:  That is a very long story, as it has taken me four years of hard work to get to this point and a lifetime to prepare.  The short version is that I have been wanting to come to Antarctica for the last four years to do reconnaissance work for The Polar Project.  I have also wanted to create a series of Light Recordings and Moving Light pieces under the Antarctic sky in order to capture the unique phenomena that occur there.  In April of last year I came across ITASC's
project on the IPY (International Polar Year 2007-2008) website, and saw the immediate potential for collaboration.  It took me a bit of time to track them down, but when we finally connected in December last year, I was immediately invited to join them for this season's expedition to Antarctica.  It is fantastic to work with the ITASC team – they are a brilliant and engaging group of artists, scientists and engineers.

I should say that it is fairly easy, if you have about 10-20,000 US dollars, to hop on a cruise ship to Antarctica.  However, you will be mostly boat-based, as the Antarctic Treaty does not allow land-based expeditions without permits.  Therefore, if you want to come onto the continent itself for more than a couple of hours or so, you must be a scientist or researcher and go through a laborious amount of bureaucracy.  Most of the countries that have bases here do have special programs for artists, which is great, but they only take artists from their own country, and the applications are long, complicated and about a year in advance of the season you'd go if you got accepted.  So, it is particularly incredible that I was invited by the South African National Antarctic Program (SANAP) to join this year's expedition at their base in Dronning Maud Land, especially given that this all went through several weeks before the flight to Antarctica.  The whole thing was sincerely serendipitous, and I am grateful for this truly unusual collaboration across disciplines as well as across borders.  I could not be here without the good graces of ITASC and SANAP.

Tomorrow Erika talks about the confluence of aesthetics and ecology in her work and some of the special equipment she's using in Antarctica.  In the meantime, check out her expedition blog

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