In Antarctica, golden sledge is icy art

ROTHERA BASE, Antarctica (Reuters) - One of the few artists in Antarctica tests out his latest work on the snow -- a golden wooden sledge made of bits of old, ornate picture frames.

Chris Dobrowolski, 40, whose playful art has included a boat built from driftwood or a battle tank powered by lawnmowers, surveys the 12-foot (3.7 meter) sledge after towing it behind a snow scooter by the British Rothera research base.

“It worked as I hoped,” he said, after the sledge flexed over icy bumps without cracking. He built it at the base in two months following a classic “Nansen” design in which many of the wooden parts are lashed together with leather.

“I’ve made a whole series of vehicles, I’ve not made a sledge before,” said Dobrowolski, a British artist who is the artist in residence at Rothera.

Other nations such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand also sponsor artists on the frozen continent, from composers to painters to poets.

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“Antarctica is an amazing place and few people ever get here,” said Athena Dinar, spokeswoman for the British Antarctic Survey, which runs Rothera. “Artists are very different from other people at the station and can help reach new audiences.”

Other workers at Rothera, on the Antarctic Peninsula, include scientists, carpenters, pilots and plumbers.

Dobrowolski says his art vehicles are built like children’s go-carts and often break down. A hovercraft, with buoyancy from plastic bottles, got stuck in mud. His driftwood boat sank.

He says he draws inspiration from French surrealist Marcel Duchamps, who shocked the art world by displaying a men’s urinal in a gallery in 1917, and German 20th century artist Joseph Beuys, who said that “anybody can be an artist.”

“I’m desperately trying to find materials that accentuate my role as an artist, whatever that may be. So that’s why I ended up with gold picture frames,” he said. He cut them up from old paintings bought in England.

The sledge will be flown by plane inland and used to haul supplies on a brief expedition over the ice sheet -- including camping out overnight -- and then taken to England.

What Dobrowolski did not know when he arrived in Rothera was that staff often use wood from broken Nansen sledges to build picture frames. The new sledge is “closing the loop,” he said.

At home, he sometimes gives talks to companies to promote creativity -- his colleague introduces him as a “professional failure,” partly because his art breaks down.

He says that many early explorers such as Briton Robert Falcon Scott, who lost a 1911 race to the South Pole against Norwegian Roald Amundsen, were “heroic failures.”

On seeing the Antarctic job advertised, he said: “I thought: ‘it’s a whole continent devoted to losers -- I’m your man.’”