Even the dirt looks cold. Exhaling makes you cough a little. It’s so quiet you can hear the machinations of your own body. Looking out through your goggles, past the nylon and plastic and rubber of your suit, is an odd-looking pattern in the gravel under your feet. The product of thousands of years of slight movement—the usually incomprehensible scale of geologic time—is now compacted beneath your boot. A friend wrote to me and said, “I don’t know if you’re more human or less human there.” Your mind is calibrated to a different pace. Talking, texting, the simplest activity—this place has nothing to do with any of it. These are some of the only footsteps ever taken here in this spot on the planet. It really does feel that alien.
The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are an odd variation on desert landscapes elsewhere. Add ice, subtract life—it is a proto-landscape. 1,100 Square miles of exposed rock, part of just two percent of Antarctica not covered in ice. At a glance, the Dry Valleys look similar to the basin and range landscape of the American West, or the High Arctic: expansive, barren and rocky. But as you walk around, things get strange.
From a satellite, the earth-toned valleys appear scraped out of the whiteness. There is symmetry between these satellite views and what you see from ground level. Usually a satellite image will reveal something about a place, like its geological or hydrological structure, that differs from what you comprehend with your own eyes. Here, however, your first-person view and the images from the orbiter actually sort of match. The formal qualities all seem to-scale: the edges of objects large and small both have the same curvature. The palette is identical. There’s no dissonance, no bounce. It’s all of a piece, entirely singular, one huge sculpture.
The cold, dry air affects the perception of scale. Large features like glaciers or entire mountains— from base to summit—are visible in their singular totality. And because of the ability to see fine details from a great distance, these things appear closer than they actually are. In addition, there is simply nothing in the way—no trees, no vegetation, no moisture.
When people first walk on Mars, I imagine their descriptions of the experience will resemble those of the Dry Valleys. There is a feeling of age in the steps you take. It has a museum-like quality, a world of geology. A microbial ecosystem does exist here, operating on the boundary of pure chemistry. It is simple, and yet totally abstract. Microorganisms live inside rocks, inside soils, and below the frozen surfaces of lakes many times saltier than the ocean. These life forms are the subject of long-term study, and represent what may be found on other planets or moons. The only organic matter I saw were blood-colored blobs of cyanobacteria suspended in the glassy ice, versions of the earliest branches of the tree of life. They come from microbial mats growing on the lake bottom. Pieces of the mats slowly make their way to the surface, dry out, and break apart.
Formal beauty and natural process are bound tight in the desert. This connection has been a source of aesthetic contemplation throughout art history. I came here to take photographs and make drawings, from which I would create a series of paintings. In my grant proposal I outlined a vision of poetic simplicity, with compositions of rock, ice, and sky. The reductionism of painting landscapes seemed like a good match for this place. The bigness. The emptiness. But as big and empty as the Dry Valleys are, they are rich with information. The smallest detail felt expansive, the idea of the depth of time etched in every surface. Lifeless material suggested the living, and flat surfaces reflected great depth.
We left the Dry Valleys in a helicopter, skimming across the gray frozen sea patterned white with snow. It was ten thirty in the morning and we flew directly at the sun. The sun would set two hours later—polar night was imminent. The buildings of McMurdo Station appeared out of the grayness. The heavy noise of the aircraft wump-wumped steadily down to the concrete pad. We were back on Earth.
All images © 2008-2013 Chris Kannen. All rights reserved.
For full portfolio of images please visit the artist’s website at: http://chriskannen.tumblr.com/.
 Priscu, John, et al. “Perennial Antarctic Lake Ice: An Oasis for Life in a Polar Desert.” Science 26 June 1998: 2095-97. http://www.montana.edu/lkbonney/DOCS/Publications/PriscuEtAl1998Oasis.pdf