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Experiments in the Arctic

Experiments in the Arctic

Bundled into a suit of thick neoprene, Ming-Yi Wong MArch 10 edged herself off the side of the Zodiac and lunged toward the massive piece of floating ice.

Bundled into a suit of thick neoprene, Ming-Yi Wong MArch 10 edged herself off the side of the Zodiac and lunged toward the massive piece of floating ice. After planting both feet firmly on the frozen island, she threw her harness to nearby crewmates and walked to the middle of the cold, lumbering mass. For the intrepid adventurer, that one step held huge significance since one misstep could have been fatal, leading to almost immediate hypothermia.

“Being close to the edge [of the ice] was a scary experience because there was a real possibility of falling,” notes Wong, an artist and practicing architect based in Honolulu, Hawaii. “But once you got to the middle, it felt just like you were on a frozen pond. You could ice skate on it.”

That was just one of many heart-stopping moments Wong and Amanda Thackray MFA 12 PR experienced while participating in The Arctic Circle’s Summer Solstice Expedition, a two-week residency program for international artists, writers and scientists. In June the adventuresome group boarded a Barquentine tall ship to sail around the Svalbard archipelago – a cluster of Norwegian islands located near the North Pole. As they glided past glaciers and craggy cliffs, the band of explorers tinkered with fascinating personal projects.

For instance, Wong conducted a series of calculated experiments to test the physical properties of a most malleable material: wax. In a makeshift studio located in the ship’s hull, she warmed up the drippy substance to make intriguing forms that could have been mistaken for popcorn-infused rocks, a batch of oddly shaped pancakes and even human hands. One especially frigid afternoon, she rolled a soda bottle across a stretch of cooling wax to investigate how smooth and tacky surfaces interact.

“For me, it was important to hone my process since my experiments were deeply influenced by the extreme weather of the Arctic,” Wong explains. “I wasn’t terribly interested in the resulting wax forms. I was more interested in seeing how mixing hot and cold temperatures in various ways affected my materials.”

Thackray used her studio time to sketch out graphic drawings inspired by human muscles and the intricacies of the ship’s rigging – activities she enjoys when not aboard maritime vessels. She also created Japanese paper rope bracelets and hand-stone lithographs copied from knot-making tutorials. “My work represents a conversation between the body and the knotted sculptures that line the ship,” she explains. “This type of nautical braiding involves a type of twisting and turning that feels corporal to me.”

The crew also got a rare opportunity to visit Pyramiden, an abandoned coal mining camp that closed in 1998. Once run by Russians, the ghostly settlement boasts the world’s northernmost statue of Lenin and even a grand piano in its auditorium. Some scientists believe that given the extreme climate, the camp’s major buildings will remain intact more than 500 years from now.

“It was a really eerie experience,” notes Wong. “When touring the settlement, it looked as if nothing had been moved since everyone left town. It felt like someone was just there.”

Aside from her artistic experimentations, Wong also made raw audio recordings of glaciers, which emit arresting sounds as they crack. She hopes to incorporate them into future works in some way. “This was truly a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Wong sums up. “I'm still processing everything I saw and felt in the Arctic – a place of extreme fragility.”

–Abigail Crocker

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Architect and artist Ming-Yi Wong MArch 10/PB 11 GL brings a studio approach to her work at the National Park Service in Washington, DC.