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Uploaded:2019-01-03
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In 1958, scientists from Russia left a plastic bust of Vladimir Lenin at the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, and as of 2007 it was still there. What does it mean? Guest host John Green ponders his fascination with this object and the changing nature of art.

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On December 14, 1958, a group of 18 scientists and explorers from the Soviet Union arrived at the coldest and most remote plot of land on Earth, which is known as the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility.  They were traveling in a convoy of tractors, one of which carried a pre-fabricated 240 square foot hut and upon arrival, the team installed the hut and cleared an area for an airplane runway and they also placed atop their research building a plastic bust of the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.  The bust was faced North, so that Lenin would be looking toward Moscow.  

This newly created Soviet research station had six months of food and fuel but the expedition only lasted 12 days before the station was abandoned, because it became clear that even by the extremely cold and remote standards of Antarctica, this place with its average year-round temperature of -58 degrees Celsius and its altitude of over 3,800 meters above sea level was simply too inhospitable for humans to have an ongoing presence there.  

So Pole of Inaccessibility is a geography term, referring to the spot furthest from a coast in any landmass or body of water.  North America's Pole of Inaccessibility is in the Dakotas on land owned by the (?~1:18) Sioux.  It's more than a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.  South America's Pole of Inaccessibility is in a Brazilian rainforest.  Eurasia's is in the (?~1:27) desert near the border between China and Kazakhstan.  The African Pole of Inaccessibility is also very close to an international border, the tripoint border shared by the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

Every ocean has such a place as well.  The Pacific Ocean's Pole of Inaccessibility is the furthest you can be from land on Earth.  That spot is sometimes called point Nemo and because it is so far from land, unmanned spacecraft returning to Earth are often aimed at Point Nemo.  As such, it's become a kind of satellite graveyard.  The abandoned space station Mir, for instance, is among hundreds of spacecraft whose last and final resting place is near Point Nemo, but the most famous Pole of Inaccessibility on Earth is that one in Antarctica.

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It's much harder to reach than the geographic South Pole, which is the Southernmost point on Earth.  While humans made it to the geographic South Pole in 1911, it took 47 more years to reach the Pole of Inaccessibility.  In those intervening years, Vladimir Lenin led the Russian Revolution and became the first leader of the Soviet Union.  There were two World Wars and tremendous shifts in mechanization, the development of nuclear weapons, and the launch of the first ever satellite, and even then, explorers accustomed to Antarctica's climate lasted less a fortnight before abandoning the post.

Another group of Soviet explorers made a brief visit in January of 1964.  Later that year, a team of Americans arrived at the research station and stayed for over a month, during which time they apparently repositioned the bust of Lenin so that it was facing not Moscow, but Washington DC, and then the Soviets visited the station very briefly, one more time, in 1967, at which point they apparently turned Lenin back toward Moscow.  

After that, the mostly abandoned research station was entirely abandoned.  For 40 years, no humans made it back to the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility and in those 40 years, most of the world's many Lenin busts ended up destroyed or removed from public view after the Soviet Union collapsed.  A bunch of them ended up underwater off the coast of the Crimean peninsula.  Others were melted down or ended up in junkyards.  Meanwhile, nobody knew what had become of that research station.  Blown over, probably.  Destroyed not by revolution, but by weather, and then in 2007, an expedition made it back to the Pole of Inaccessibility and as they approached, they saw that the research station had indeed been almost entirely buried by four decades of snowfall and shifting ice and yet, still somehow, that bust of Lenin, being at the tallest point of the structure, survived.

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It had yellowed some, but otherwise was in good shape.  The last time humans visited in 2011, the bust was still there, a single human intervention in what one Antarctic explorer called "the white darkness", and that leads me to the point of this whole thing, which is that I find this remaining Lenin sculpture to be utterly  beautiful and I'm trying to figure out why.  Like, God knows I have no desire to see it in person. 

The artwork itself is not particularly masterful or compelling.  Lenin busts were mass produced and there's nothing extraordinary about this one, except its location and the bust was ultimately intended as propaganda for a regime that killed millions of its own citizens.  Propagandistic sculpture is often intended to induce reverence or obedience or fear, but I feel none of that in 2018 when looking at pictures of the world's most inaccessible Lenin bust.  

Instead, I'm reminded how contingent objects are.  How they're always in conversation with history and with their viewers.  How they change over time even if they don't look different because we change.  That Lenin bust is about Lenin, of course, but it's also about how it got there and why, which way it's facing, and the fluctuating landscape of power.  Maybe what's beautiful in the end is that this is a spot so frozen in time. 

Of course, for all we know, the Lenin bust might already be gone, finally snowed under or destroyed by wind in the past seven years.  Regardless, it won't last forever, but it has survived nearly a human lifetime in a place where humans themselves cannot long survive.  That we can put art in places we cannot put ourselves captures both our stunning power and our absolute fragility.  We have our hands all over everything in this world.  We're reshaping the climate and the planet's biodiversity.  

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We shoot so many things into space that we've wrapped out planets in satellites and yet, we are also temporary.  We are small, mortal beings on a planet that contains places we cannot visit very often or for very long because they are too cold and too far removed from other humans, but even in those places, we've left little somethings in an attempt to say we were here.  We were.  I don't know if that's good or bad in the end, but it seems to me very human.

I'm reminded of the negative hand stencil cave paintings that were independently created by many prehistoric people around the world.  Our ancestors also painted lots of other things, all kinds of symbols and many different kinds of animals, including some that are now extinct.  We don't know what those paintings meant to the people who painted them or looked at them by firelight as they fell asleep.  Their paintings may have had religious import or they could have been part of hunting rituals, but regardless of what they meant then, they mean something different to us now.  Ancient cave paintings remind us how long people have been part of the story of our planet and how deeply ingrained our desire is to make art.

The Lenin bust at the bottom of the world isn't as old of course, but it, too, is being changed by history, just as surely as it is being changed by the weather.  At any rate, I like imagining that the Lenin bust is still there, still being changed by many different kinds of time, and I wonder if there are objects, be they art or not, close or far, that have changed meaning for you over time or that you feel have been changed by history.  Let's discuss that in comments.

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