Six years ago, Megan Berner took a train from Reno to Iowa. It was winter, and it was the Midwest, and as she passed through the snow-covered flatlands, she read Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez.
In his book about the Arctic Circle, Lopez wrote, “As I traveled, I came to believe that people’s desires and aspirations were as much a part of the land as the wind, solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra. ”
Besides giving photographer and multimedia artist Berner an itch for the far north, Lopez’s themes of projected desire and imagined geographies would pop up time and again on her winding path towards her own Arctic expedition. But before she would get the chance to travel to the icecaps, Berner did time in the less glamorous, but equally beautiful—and equally flat—prairie and desert landscapes of the Midwest and Great Basin.
Berner’s first waypoint on this journey was graduate school at the University of Iowa. Often overlooked for the same reasons that the Arctic is—ideas of pervasive dullness and monotony—the Midwest is ideal ground for exploring what Berner calls “the territory of the mind.”
Here, Berner became acquainted with the fantastical inner life that arises from a featureless landscape. In her Wallow series, Berner filled interior spaces with plant life to create the beginning stages of a forest takeover. In a piece titled “Cultivate Plant Adoption Agency,” the artist invited viewers to undergo an official adoption process for prairie plants.
After moving back to Reno, Berner marked her return with a series of flag pieces that played with the concept of claiming territory as she placed these symbols of conquest in locations of personal significance. This was followed by a series called The Explorers where she and her twin sister recreated historical images and charted paths traversed by such famous explorers as Lewis and Clark, Roald Amundsen, and Captain James Cook.
Several years and various personal cartographies later, we arrive at Berner’s latest discovery: the Arctic Circle residency. It is exactly what it sounds like—an extended term for artists, scientists and educators to conduct creative and collaborative research in the Arctic. No proposed project is required for entry, rather, applicants are chosen based upon their previous work and perceived ability to respond to an environment that is predominantly one color, void of familiar features, and freezing cold.
Perhaps Berner was selected because she summed it up best: “With all of these ’empty’ spaces, which are not empty—like the Arctic, like the desert, like the ocean—it is fertile ground for imagination. Whether it’s charted or uncharted territory, literally … figuratively, a lot of it isn’t.”
During the Arctic Circle Residency, 27 strangers spend almost three weeks at sea as they travel by boat at night and explore polar ice caps during the day. Since Berner’s trip coincides with the summer solstice this coming June, her expedition will have some degree of light at all times.
Away from the limits of seasonal light and confines of Western time, Berner and her companions will be free to spend their days in mental landscapes of their own making.
So what is the artist reading to prepare her mind for the expedition? Arctic Dreams? Northwest Passage?
“[It’s] called The Terror, and it’s about an 1840s expedition that the British took to the Arctic Circle,” she said. “They get iced in for three years, are rationing their food, and are being attacked by this thing that’s like a giant polar bear.”
“It’s crazy,” said the person traveling to the Arctic Circle.