Alien lands

Exploring remote Antarctica at 1078 Gallery

Michelle Ott at 1078 Gallery.

Michelle Ott at 1078 Gallery.

Photo by Robert Speer


Outer Space is Closer Than Antarctica shows through Aug. 18. Reception: Saturday, Aug. 17, 6-8 p.m.
1078 Gallery
1710 Park Ave.

In 1999, Michelle Ott saw an advertisement for available jobs at McMurdo Station, in Antarctica, and decided to scratch her itch for adventure and apply for the position of “dining attendant”—a euphemism for dishwasher, as it turned out.

During summer months, McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s largest research community, is home to around 1,000 people. They generate a lot of dirty dishes.

Ott was unfazed. Antarctica fascinated her—so much so that in coming years she returned for three additional stints in various capacities, ranging from baker to housekeeper.

When she wasn’t working, she was building a photo archive of the intriguing world around her. Antarctica is at once very much like a desert and, simultaneously, a desert’s exact opposite.

Among her other current roles, Ott is artist in residence at the Gateway Science Museum. That brought her into contact with Dr. Fraka Harmsen, a renowned geologist who at the time was dean of the College of Natural Sciences at Chico State. She has been on two challenging deep-field explorations into the interior of the icy continent in search of fish fossils that would reveal the continent’s ancient geological history.

Last Saturday (Aug. 3), the two joined forces at the 1078 Gallery, where Harmsen, a professor of geology, presented a slide show of photos she’d taken while on her explorations. As she presented the slides, she read from a book, Mountains of Madness: A Scientist’s Odyssey in Antarctica, written by John Long, also a member of the expeditions.

As Long points out in his book, hiking across Antarctica is always dicey. The weather is constantly changing. Fog can make traveling impossible for days on end. There are numerous hidden crevasses. And once an exploration is underway, the team is completely on its own in a beautiful but desolate and dangerous landscape.

Harmsen’s presentation was accompanied by Ott’s exhibition of hand-cut photos, black-and-white illustrations, and cotton “ice sheets”—Ott calls them “photographic quilts.” Collectively, they catalog her observations made during four five-month stays at McMurdo Station.

The first thing one sees at the exhibit is a huge illustration that describes the Karman Line, which commonly represents the boundary between Earth and outer space. As her show’s title—Outer Space Is Closer Than Antarctica: Things I Learned Working at an Antarctic Research Base—suggests, it’s fairly astonishing that outer space begins just 62 miles from where we are, while McMurdo Station is 8,496 miles away from California. The realization that our atmosphere is so thin and fragile and yet is all that protects us from meteoric destruction is profound.

Ott’s illustrations are charming. She has a unique style that is at once pleasantly lighthearted and also is capable of explaining complex scientific concepts. One of the side benefits of working at McMurdo is the opportunity to attend presentations by the research scientists there, and Ott took full advantage. In a series of about 10 illustrations, each about 2 feet square, Ott describes and, in her inimitable way, explains such phenomena as karabatic winds, ventifacts (“Ventifacts Are Rocks”), scientific ice cores (“Ice Cores Are Time Travelers”) and long-duration balloons that can carry data-collecting payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds and ascend 26 miles for as long as two weeks.

A second element of her show is a series of photos taken at the station with the human elements—waste bins, buildings, generators, people—cut away, forcing attention on this “desert landscape,” as she describes it in her artist’s statement, on which we humans inevitably leave traces.

Finally, a series of large cloth sheets hanging from the ceiling—her “photographic quilts”—are meant to “reflect Antarctic ice as a rapidly changing component in the dilemma of climate change.”