Stark Canvas

In their work, Farthest North, artists Claudia O’Steen and Aly Ogasian ventured to the North Pole to retrace a 19th-century explorer’s audacity and adversity.

By Ron Wagner

Three years before the 20th century began, Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée set out to become the first person to reach the North Pole. He believed he could succeed where hundreds of others had failed by trying something no one else had: flying there in a hydrogen balloon. Andrée’s belief that technology could conquer nature was so unflinching it bordered on credulity when he, Nils Strindberg, and Knut Frænkel set sail from Danskøya, an island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, on July 11, 1897.

Andrée had ignored warnings from scientists and other experts about the dangers of his untested plan, and sure enough the silk balloon struggled to stay aloft throughout the journey before crashing onto the frozen Arctic Ocean about 65 hours after takeoff. The men were still more than 300 miles from the pole, but also more than 300 miles from where they’d started. The outlook was grim.

Searching for land, they wandered the desolation for more than three months, navigating drifting, rugged ice floes until finally reaching the uninhabited and glacier-enshrouded island of Kvitøya in early October. They died shortly thereafter, their fate a mystery until the bodies were found in 1930.

It would be 11 or 12 more years, depending on whose account you accept, until a human finally reached the North Pole. It would be another 75 before Andrée’s muse inspired Claudia O’Steen (pictured in the T-shirt with the female figure) and her collaborator Aly Ogasian to travel themselves to the Arctic Circle in order to create Farthest North, their piece on hubris, ambition, failure, death—all aspects of Andrée’s story.

A lot of our work is about failure in a way.

“We found him interesting because he wasn’t actually known as an explorer,” O’Steen, a 2012 Watkins graduate, says. “His writing and speeches were about the power of technology and how technology would overcome any challenges mankind would face in the future, and his expedition was really about proving that. We just sort of had this feeling of failure.”

Calling itself “an incubator for thought and experimentation for artists and innovators who seek out and foster areas of collaboration to engage in the central issues of our time,” The Arctic Circle’s annual series of expeditions takes place aboard a tall ship, a specially rigged sailing vessel off which passengers are strongly encouraged not to fall. O’Steen and Ogasian researched Andrée for almost a year before receiving their fellowship and traveling to Svalbard, the northernmost permanently settled place in the world, where they spent nearly four weeks retracing his steps as closely as possible.

That task was made easier thanks to the existence of journals the men kept that chronicled their deteriorating prospects as well as 93 pictures, which were preserved, ironically, by the very cold that took the men’s lives.

Because of them, O’Steen and Ogasian sometimes knew they were looking at exactly the same things Andrée had. They stood on the same windswept cliff overlooking the same harbor leading to the same barren expanse of ice. They sailed the very winds that carried his balloon up to 81° longitude, where they got out and walked on the pack ice imagining what it would be like to know there was no ship to climb back aboard, no armed guards nearby scanning for polar bears, no help coming. “It felt very eerie,” Ogasian says. “It allowed us to put ourselves in his shoes to understand what it felt like to be isolated knowing that you’re probably not going to survive in this landscape. I think it just really crystalized that for us.”

A postdoctoral research fellow at the University of West Florida, O’Steen specializes in installations that examine exploration, place, and the experience of being lost. In Farthest North, she and Ogasian attempted to connect the area in the Arctic where Andrée met his fate to Rhode Island, where the two did their research, both physically and in space and time. The result is a fascinating synthesis of artifacts, objects, media, and technology from 1897 and 2016.

There are video and photo projections of Virgohamna, the harbor leading to the vastness of the Arctic Ocean, taken from their documentation as well as Andrée’s. A rock cairn, an ancient means of navigation, marks the point both where a photograph of Andree’s balloon was taken as he departed, as well as where O’Steen and Ogasian stood flying a kite, color-card charted to match the color of the sky over the course of a day in Providence, RI.

In one corner, there’s a buoy with a video tracing the expedition route O’Steen and Ogasian traveled from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. In another, a replica of a small beacon used to identify ship hazards located on Smeerenburg, a small town on Danskøya. Resting on the buoy is a row of jars filled with water and marked with coordinates indicating where they were found.

“Thinking about our location where we lived while we were researching the project and comparing that with the Arctic landscape—we wanted to bridge these two places,” O’Steen says. “There’s video, photography, drawing, and sculpture—there’s a lot going on. I think we were trying to imagine the point where his documentation and understanding of a place meets ours.”

“We don’t necessarily clarify where ours ends and his begins,” Ogasian adds. “We sort of move back and forth between the two.”

O’Steen focused on media and sculpture at Watkins, and before Farthest North she and Ogasian collaborated on a project inspired by Sir John Franklin, who also died trying to reach the North Pole 50 years prior to Andrée’s attempt. If you’re sensing a theme, it’s not your imagination.

“A lot of our work is about failure in a way,” O’Steen says. “We were interested in people attempting to do all of these things that seemed almost impossible and somewhat pointless … If (Andrée) had survived or they had successfully reached the pole, it would have been a completely different project. I’m not sure we would have picked him.”

While popular perception is that artists work in solitude, collaborations such as these are growing more common. O’Steen and Ogasian, a member of the adjunct faculty at both Naugatuck Valley Community College and Rhode Island School of Design, share an interest in combining sculpture with video, and both think they’re better because of the other.

“We both make work that often when we first talk about it … people are like, how is that art?” O’Steen says with a laugh. “Luckily, it’s pretty natural for us. I know in a lot of collaborations, people will split things up. One person will have one track and one will have another. Somehow it’s always been back and forth (with us). It’s nice to have someone question what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about. It helps you to think through your ideas.”

“It’s not like one of us is like, I’m going to do all the video and this other person is going to do all the sculpture or something. We make decisions together, and we come up with a lot of our ideas through conversations,” Ogasian says. “I think it actually makes the work a lot stronger, because you’re always editing rather than thinking everything you think of is the best idea.”

O’Steen’s work has been exhibited in galleries in New York, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Providence. An Alabama native from the Muscle Shoals area, she transferred to Watkins from Auburn after seeing the creative abilities of the people there. “When choosing schools, undergrad and graduate school, I looked at artwork that was made by the students and the faculty,” she says. “I was really interested in a lot of the artwork that I saw out of Watkins.”

O’Steen won the President’s Award for Scholastic Excellence at Watkins and still has a close relationship with professors Kristi Hargrove, Terry Thacker, Ron Lambert, and Derek Cote. “Their input during my research and development was invaluable, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” she says. “I feel really lucky to have gone to school there. I work a lot with research, and I think I started to develop a lot of that there because I was really encouraged to do that. I was given the freedom to pursue things in the way that I was interested in, and so I’m grateful.”

Speaking of, when asked if she’d ever again venture above the Arctic Circle O’Steen offers a quick yes. “When we were there the sun was up 24 hours a day. I’d love to go back when I could see the stars,” she says.

O’Steen and Ogasian will be at Watkins to discuss their gallery show, Farthest North, at 6 p.m. on February 8. To learn more about them and their work, visit their websites here and here.