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Polar Expression

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By Mary Daily

Published Jan 1, 2015 8:00 AM


Artist Lita Albuquerque created the first large-scale work ever installed in Antarctica.

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Death Valley, The Mojave Desert, South Dakota’s Badlands and Antarctica. For more than 30 years, environmental artist Lita Albuquerque ’68 has used the Earth’s most challenging surfaces to explore the intimate, spatial relationship between our universe and its inhabitants. Her works, which form patterns over vast, wide-open spaces, belong to the Land Art generation that also includes James Turrell, Christo and Robert Smithson, among others. She “paints” with materials, such as brightly clad people or fabricated spheres.

In 2006, the Santa Monica native ventured into yet another daunting landscape. She led an expedition near the South Pole to create the first installment of a groundbreaking global project. Her canvas was the Ross Ice Shelf. Her creation, titled Stellar Axis and originally funded by the National Science Foundation, was the first large-scale work ever installed in Antarctica. It soon gained international acclaim as a stunning and ecologically sensitive intervention on the continent. The project is now the subject of a book of essays and photos published by Skira Rizzoli in collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

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Albuquerque installed Stellar Axis on December 22, concurrent with the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. To develop the work, she collaborated with National Science Foundation astronomer Simon Balm to make a map of the 99 brightest stars and their corresponding constellations visible at the South Pole, creating a reverse sky on the ice. She then positioned 99 ultramarine blue fiberglass spheres — ranging in diameter from 10 inches to four feet — to represent the relative magnitudes of the stars. The project linked the stars through both poles as a shaft of light aligned with the rotational axis of the Earth, forming a double helix as a metaphor for the conveyance of information, a kind of stellar DNA. The blue orb, Albuquerque explained, drew into itself “all the energy of the mountains . . . transforming its icy blue vapor into ultramarine.”

The book, Lita Albuquerque: Stellar Axis, is the first monograph on the artist, who teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The volume surveys her career, highlighting the Antarctica project, and includes her own reflections on her work, plus 100 photographs.

Albuquerque gave the complete archive from the Antarctica project to the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment, whose mission is to explore the creative interactions between humans and their natural, built and virtual environments. The center holds the largest polar art and archive collection. The Stellar Axis archive includes correspondence, maps, journals, photographs, videos and three spheres — two that were on the ice and one pristine model.

From this archive, the Nevada Museum of Art assembled an exhibition that will travel to USC’s Fisher Museum of Art in the spring.

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