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Arctic Art

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By Jack Feuer

Published Apr 1, 2011 8:00 AM


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Scenes from El Norte: Rebeca Méndez plants her flag. Photos courtesy of Rebeca Méndez

The cruel, cold barren reaches of the North Pole is where one normally expects to see pictures of fearless, burly, bearded male explorers fighting frigid winds, icicles dangling from their frozen caps — not the image of a small, bundled figure, still fairly clearly identifiable as a woman, trudging through snow and ice and struggling with a pole atop which snaps the flag of a Latin American nation.

And the iconic image of a flag being planted in the frozen ground is normally associated with courageous American or European expeditions, often accompanied by huge ships and boxes of supplies, led by scientists and explorers — not a Mexican flag planted by an artist from Los Angeles.

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To the artist, nature resonates with questions about identity.

But that is where you would have found intrepid (and acclaimed) artist and designer Rebeca Méndez, UCLA professor in the Design | Media Arts Department last fall. As she wrote of her journey to the Svalbard archipelago, just a few degrees from the North Pole:

"After traveling for two days and more than 10 thousand kilometers with equipment weighing more than myself, today my boat left to sail around the International Territory of the Svalbard archipelago, which is only a few degrees from the North Pole. Three thousand people live here and 3,000 polar bears."

Méndez chronicled her journey in a multimedia art project called El Norte, which she writes is about "the futile conquest of the North Pole by the artist herself — [and] also points to the ambivalence of the Mexican migrant's 'dream vs. reality' experience in their journey to the United States for a better life."

It was as much an internal as external exploration for Méndez, who ventured to the top of the world as part of The Arctic Circle, a series of annual expeditions in which groups of artists, architects and scientists voyage for several days and nights into the High Arctic aboard an ice-class, traditionally rigged sailing vessel.

"One of the things that is most interesting to me is the way in which we assign an identity or a voice to nature," she says. "It is to me the story of how I relate to my life, especially in the times we're seeing right now. You feel it in every step you make. I'm questioning not just the geopolitics of the North Pole, but also the identity of a migrant. We're all migrating to new territory."

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Méndez, dressed for the event.

Mixing art with high adventure is nothing new for the celebrated artist. Méndez explores the nature of perception and media representation, specifically how cultures express themselves through the style of nature that they produce at a given time and the medium through which they construct this nature. She works on canvases of all kinds, from photography to video, 16mm film, sound installations — even giant murals and tons of lava rock.

The journey itself is art to her, and Méndez, who grew up in Mexico City and often followed her father in pursuit of Mayan archaeology into the Mexican jungle, has explored many unfamiliar and extreme places, including Iceland, Patagonia and the Sahara.

And the artist-adventurer already intends to return to the frozen north, planning one project on an Arctic seed vault and another to document the life formation of sea ice.

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