Isolation. You think you know what it is by now. But have you been to Antarctica? You’ve likely come as close to it as you may ever want to, perhaps, enduring the past year’s pandemic lockdowns and losses, stone cold separations from friends, family and predictable routines.
Meet Oakland artist Andrew Miguel Fuller. He actually had a lifelong dream of going to Antarctica. Even as a teenager living in the high desert at the outskirts of Los Angeles, California, he owned a copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s, The Worst Journey in the World. The 800-page phonebook of a memoir was an account by one of the few surviving members of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s final 1910 Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. And it was one of the few belongings Fuller brought with him when he moved to the Bay Area in 2005.
Fuller didn’t have the funds or desire to join one of the expensive Antarctic tours that sets off from the southern tip of Chile but had become thoroughly enchanted with the idea of visiting the vast white continent someday. On the 100th anniversary of the Terra Nova crew’s return to England, he wrote up his first application for a job in Antarctica, entirely unaware of the symbolic timing.
And that was it. Over the next decade, Fuller would occasionally apply to one Antarctica job or another and take on any work that seemed like it might help lead him down that road to being eligible, though he never really expected it to actually work out. “It was more of an organizing principle than a real ambition,” he said. The impossible goal at the end of a road. An imaginary dream to point himself toward something and buoy him through what he calls “the occasional profound sense of meaninglessness of a life dedicated to the arts.”
In the mid-aughts, Fuller made the decision to devote himself to making art though he realized quickly that he would need to keep up some kind of regular work if he wanted to eat. Around that time, he was introduced to Peter Hudson, an intriguing artist who was making twenty to thirty-foot tall kinetic sculptures. In order to work with him, Fuller needed several certifications to operate the heavy equipment required to install the sculptures around the U.S. and Europe. From there, fabricating and installing monumental artwork for a dozen other artists’ studios over the next decade served him well for his future dream. “Turns out, the same skillset that makes you a successful handler of heavy, expensive, one-of-a-kind artworks translates really well to handling heavy, expensive, one-of-a-kind science equipment,” he said.
In October 2019, the stars aligned, and he got the phone call. He was offered a job, providing he could pass the barrage of physical qualification exams and get his life in order within the next four weeks. By mid-November, he was on a flight to New Zealand, then on to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, with a contract for two and a half months. But it would be just shy of a full year before he returned to the Bay Area at the end of 2020, a return to a place that was familiar yet entirely changed. Even more so than he himself was.
Isolation is an atypical and indescribable juggernaut. What could it have been like for Fuller in the context of the extreme isolation experience in Antarctica vis-a-vis the pandemic-imposed isolation he was hearing about unfolding everywhere else in the world? “I had a month to prepare myself to head to Antarctica from the day I was offered a job. I knew I’d be flying into mental and physical difficulty and, at the time, one month seemed like hardly any time at all to prepare myself for it.” When his short contract was optioned to extend through the coming winter and, therefore, the year, he took the decision very seriously.
Are you trying to picture his particular isolation yet, vis-à-vis your own, that is? Fuller explained that McMurdo Station, though currently in the early stages of reconstruction, was never really a designed space so much as an organically grown outpost. Originally built in 1955, there are now well over 80 buildings patched together into this strange little town at the end of the world. Work can be stunningly monotonous, as each person’s job is highly specialized. As Fuller describes it, between the dazzlingly diverse infrastructure, support and science needs of the station, the kind of person who shows up down there is hard to generalize about. “I met a truly wide mix of people, from a two-time Commander of the International Space Station, a few world-class mountaineers, to an artist of elaborate conceptual cakes working as a hazardous waste technician,” he said.
For his part, Fuller was lucky enough to work in several roles and spent most days working outdoors in some form or another. Hired as a crane and heavy equipment operator, he expanded his skills by joining the Antarctica Winter Search & Rescue Team and also trained as a Medical Auxiliary with the Mass Casualty Incident Response Team. Having some variety of work through the long, dark months of winter played a huge role in keeping him sane.
For months, he didn’t allow himself to think any farther into the future than a week or two, trying as much as he could to keep his mind in the present moment. “When someone would joke about the coming months of darkness and I let my mind wander out down the line, I’d have to fight back a sinking pit in my stomach and bring my focus back to the present moment, to the physical world around me,” he said. Fuller tried not to joke darkly about the hardships he and others endured and never took for granted what they had access to, though it became increasingly beige and undifferentiated with each passing month of isolation from the outside world.
“Wintering over in Antarctica reminded me of the early stages of a bout of depression — like a big, wet, heavy, gray blanket being slowly dragged over your life,” Fuller said. The combination of the daily monotony, which he likened to the movie, Groundhog Day, and physical hardship was trying. “It felt like taking your nice sharp mind and storing it into a rock tumbler for six months,” he added.
Shelter-in-place? Fuller says that even the initial excitement of living at the ragged edge of civilization can eventually become a drudge. It doesn’t take long for fresh food supplies to run out. Other amenities and condiments start being rationed until those run out, too. Your social world begins to chafe. Your co-workers are also your housemates, are also your drinking partners, are also the same people who show up for the one piano recital at the tiny chapel. In essence, they are 100% your entire social world and all the members of your town. Any semblance of privacy is desperately hard to find. Especially when it’s minus 50 degrees Farenheit outside with a 100 mile per hour wind.
Approaching Midwinter’s Day, the long-held holiday marking the midway point of a four-month long Antarctic night, things had become pretty grim. The hallways were dead quiet. At mealtimes, more and more tables had only one or two people sitting at them. Others began eating meals alone in their dormitory rooms. Fuller started bartending to help pass the time. Some nights, he’d only have a single other person sitting at the bar with him — sitting silently for three or four hours with hardly a word passing between them. “There were days when I’d go to sleep at night, having hardly spoken more than a few sentences to anybody all day, all while working close to a 60-hour work week,” Fuller said. Despite the desolation, he never even turned on a television to aid distraction. How many of us can say that about the past year?
Reflecting back on his time in Antarctica, the normally prolific artist said the most unexpected thing happened. Before leaving home, he had begun filling a notebook with ideas for working with ice and snow. He was piecing together bits of ideas that he hoped to pick up and run with later and had even stuffed an unreasonable portion of his backpack — subject to a strict weight allowance — with paper and art supplies. “I arrived with big ideas and a lot of energy and was received by Antarctica like a flaming candle thrown into the ocean,” Fuller said.
What was happening to his usual preponderance of creative output? “Maybe it was the vastness and newness of the sky and the land,” he offered. “Or the hypnotic eternity of the midnight summer sun, the endless nights of the Antarctic winter.” Or maybe the extreme cold and brutal winds stripped him down to a simple basics-of-life kind of mindset. Whatever the cause, the kind of art production that normally defined his days vanished almost entirely, as if fallen into its own deep sleep.
In its place emerged photography and writing, forms he hadn’t worked with in many years. A kind of poetic record keeping. He carried a camera almost everywhere he went and set pen to paper regularly. He returned to the Bay Area with a scattered collection of images and thoughts but has only just begun to try to make any sense of them.
I asked Fuller what it was like to be in such an isolated place as a global pandemic began to unfold. Did he remember when it hit him how serious things were becoming? It was absolutely a moment he can’t ever forget. He described his news intake at McMurdo as limited to a slim, digest-version of the New York Times and a super slow Facebook connection. “Together, it felt like following a play-by-play account of the zombie apocalypse,” he said.
As he prepared to return home at the end of 2020, he remembers commenting to someone that he had had so many friends and acquaintances get married, divorced, pregnant, or die in the last year that he had honestly lost track of what had happened to whom. Indeed, it was hard to imagine what world he would be returning to amidst those changes, let alone the pandemic’s impact on the people he knew in the States. Arriving home to a nation of traumatized people still in the throes of an ever-worsening pandemic, Fuller says he still hasn’t been able to gauge whether what he felt at that moment was an overly extreme interpretation or if he was getting a pretty accurate reading of what it felt like to be living through the early lockdowns. He’s only now starting to really sort it out.
He did, in fact, have the option of renewing his contract again and it was a difficult decision to make. In the end, though, after being gone nearly ten months longer than he had expected, he was aware of the many loose ends back home that needed attention. A friend had let him store his motorcycle in her garage for what was supposed to only be two months. His Oakland art studio rent had increased by 500%. He still had an apartment lease to pay. Relationships had grown tense. Whether he had wanted to or not, it was time to go home.
I wondered, how would Fuller have experienced the isolation of the pandemic had he never left home. Did the extreme isolation of Antarctica make things easier to deal with now? “It’s hard to say how I would have taken the pandemic had I been immersed in it with everyone else in the Bay Area. There’s some part of me that regrets having missed out on this colossal shared global moment that everybody alive will share for the rest of their lives — that, somehow, improbably, I sat out on the sidelines,” he said.
Fuller has re-entered the pandemic world now as we have been seeing it. As we have been feeling it. But Fuller has the sense that his approach to it is different somehow from his housemates and the people around him. “I think my Antarctica lead-up to it definitely colors my pandemic experience differently than other people,” he said. Though he admits he never really feels like he has a good handle on how the people around him are experiencing it at their core. “Maybe it’s just too early to tell,” he added.
Back in his studio, the artist is slowly figuring out how to resume his past life and creative process. Afraid it would be hard to turn it all back on after such a profound artistic silence, he’s begun diving in. Feeling the sense of possibility again. He’s looking forward to seeing how these two worlds begin to nest together, at once frightening and exciting.
Yet, where does one go from here, back home after such a monumental experience as his, while the pandemic marches on with a vaguely defined end in sight? He calls on his creative life to guide him. “There’s an essential uncertainty to life as an artist that I think maybe other people can better understand after living through this last year,” he said. There are a couple of really exciting “maybes” floating around in the ether right now for Fuller, though he says it’s still too early for him to begin talking about them. “I’m starting to put my fishing lines back out on the shore, keeping an eye out for new things on the horizon.”
For more information about artist Andrew Miguel Fuller, visit his website at amfuller.com. As of this posting, he is planning a return to Antarctica to drive a tractor across the continent, from McMurdo to the South Pole Station.
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© 2021, Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.This essay with photographs by Andrew Miguel Fuller first appeared on Medium.com on May 7, 2021.