Arts & Culture

New York artist expresses long passion for polar exploration

4 min read

Exhibit marks Polar Year with artist’s view of explorers

They are odds and ends of lives long past, lived in the cold and ice of the world’s polar regions. They are bits and pieces that give a feeling as much as they tell a story: an old photograph here, a line drawing there, a braided ribbon, a newspaper headline.

The collages lining the walls in the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s (HMNH) newest exhibit, “Echoes in the Ice,” tell the heroic and sometimes tragic story of the exploration of the world’s poles through the eyes of New York-based artist Rik van Glintenkamp.

Van Glintenkamp is a photographer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Seventeen, and British Vogue and who has directed music videos and films for PBS. Van Glintenkamp’s fascination with polar exploration began when he was a boy and blossomed into the exhibit’s collages when he transformed informational boards made for a would-be movie on polar explorers into permanent collages.

Today, the fruits of his 14-year exercise in interpretive art total more than 100 pieces, some 37 of which are on exhibit at the HMNH through April 22.

The collages present the usual images of polar exploration – faces, ships, dogs, penguins, and ice – in unusual fashion. Combined with explanatory plaques that tell the explorer’s stories in more traditional fashion, the two combine to give visitors an informed view of an important time colored by one man’s vision.

One poignant example draws the visitor in with a large image of Lawrence Edward Grace Oates – known for sacrificing himself for the sake of his companions – copied onto puzzle pieces, with several missing.

Oates was a member of Robert Scott’s disastrous trip to the South Pole, from which neither Scott nor his four companions returned. They were two months into their return trip on March 17, 1912 – Oates’ 32nd birthday – but struggling badly. One member of the party had already died and the remaining four were struggling to reach desperately needed supplies at a depot ahead. Oates’ feet were badly frostbitten and he knew he was slowing his companions down in what had become a life-or-death race to reach the depot before their supplies ran out.

Taking matters into his own hands, Oates walked out of the tent that morning into a raging blizzard, saying, “I am just going outside, and may be some time. …” He never returned. His apparent sacrifice, detailed in Scott’s diaries, went for naught, however, as Scott and the two remaining companions died 12 days later, still 11 miles short of the supply dump.

To van Glintenkamp, Oates was something of a puzzle. Not only was his self-sacrifice extraordinary, Oates was an army officer on a naval expedition, a man with a hip wound from the Boer War on a months-long walk, dragging heavily laden sleds, to the South Pole and back.

“I made Oates a puzzle and he is a puzzle,” van Glintenkamp said. “In a certain sense, he didn’t belong there.”

The exhibit presents portraits of individual explorers starting with Martin Frobisher, an English seaman and pirate who undertook three expeditions to find the Northwest Passage in the late 1500s. It includes familiar names such as Scott, Amundsen, and Byrd, as well as less-familiar names like that of Frobisher and Adrien de Gerlache, the first man – along with his crew – to overwinter in Antarctica (in 1898).

Janis Sacco, the museum’s director of exhibitions, said the exhibit marks International Polar Year, which is being commemorated this year for the first time since 1957. The exhibit, she said, is intended to encourage visitors to embark on their own exploration of the world.

“We want to get the idea out to people about expanding their horizons and finding the explorer within,” Sacco said.

Van Glintenkamp said his exploration of the explorers themselves has convinced him that they were different from ordinary people, and certainly different from technology-dependent, comfort-seeking people today. He said the explorers were searchers driven as much by ego as by the thirst for knowledge and able to endure unimaginable hardship.

“These people are from another planet, not only in equipment, but in cast of mind,” van Glintenkamp said. “There are two parts of the world, the Arctic and the Antarctic, that are becoming more important to all of us. You can’t know a place without knowing its history. These gentlemen are these areas’ history.”