You can usually find Flounder Lee, an assistant professor of photography at IUPUI's Herron School of Art and Design, somewhere around town, either in a classroom or the gallery he co-founded, SpaceCamp MicroGallery. But Lee periodically takes trips far afield — from Alaska to Northern Europe and beyond — to explore the borders that divide nations and peoples from one another.
Lee's latest excursion to the Juneau Ice Field in Alaska, from Oct. 14-24 — which he thoroughly documented with video and photography — will form a new body of work yet to be completed. (The trip was supported by a research support funds grant from the office of the vice chancellor for research at IUPUI.)
Like other glacier systems around the world, the glaciers of the Juneau Ice Field are retreating because of the current warming trend in atmospheric temperatures. Lee wants to use his art to reflect this trend. "It's similar to what I've been doing in the previous four years," he says, "but this is pushing it in an environmental direction."
During their 10-day-long trip Lee, along with his assistant and Herron grad student Michael Hoefle, explored glaciers in the Juneau Ice Field, which is surrounded by mountains and, in the lower elevations, a temperate rain forest. The weather was overcast and drizzly and they were lucky to see the sun peak out of the clouds once or twice during their trip.
"The first day we were there we just drove out; seeing Mendenhall Glacier for the first time was amazing," Lee recalls. "It was so big and loomed over the valley. The next day we went back to that same glacier and hiked out the West Glacier Trail."
They followed the trail up onto the massive glacier.
"It was terrifying at first," Lee says. "But we'd been told that during this part of the year the danger is the least and we had ice cleats on, thankfully."
Later in the trip, they approached Mendenhall Glacier both by kayaking to the base of the glacier and by helicopter, and they documented this journey with video and digital photography. They borrowed the kayaks from the University of Alaska South, where Lee had the opportunity to lecture on his work to faculty and students.
"He was received really well," Hoefle says. "There were a few students there who definitely understood what was going on with the work. A lot of his earlier work that he showed happened to deal with Native American treaties. It's kind of a hot issue in the Alaska area."
During the trip, Lee and Hoefle explored the ramparts of three glaciers in total. Sometimes the weather got in the way of their itinerary, however, especially when traveling by helicopter.
"On the trip to the second glacier we just circled around and that's where it felt like we were getting way too close to the mountainside," Lee says. "We could see the sheep out there and they were like, 'you guys are crazy.' I'm glad we didn't land, because it was hairy. ... The winds were coming off the top of the glacier, just bailing down. Way too dangerous to land."
Glaciers in retreat
In Lee's previous projects, the cartographic boundaries incorporated into his art have been political ones. But in this case he was looking for natural borders — the previously mapped lines (termini) of glaciers in fast retreat. These imaginary lines indicating past measurements of a glacier's reach might be found in the middle of a lake or a talus slope. Not only are these lines often more tenuous than political boundaries, they're also more difficult to locate.
The ultimate products of Lee's art will likely show maps revealing the growth or contraction of glaciers. These might be superimposed or juxtaposed with his photography documenting his trip.
The maps of the Juneau Icefield do not accurately reflect the ongoing glacial retreat, according to Lee. It's a problem he hopes to address with a system of orientation combined with photographic documentation he has developed over the past decade.
"For the first few years, I used a hacked together system on my cellphone with a Bluetooth GPS. Now, through the grants I've received, I have a more rugged GPS that is waterproof and daylight readable. I use it as sort of a puzzle edge in my work. I shoot four pictures in each direction and then the GPS to indicate that those are the ones to be included."
With the help of GPS, Lee was able to successfully navigate the rugged Tongass National Forest, but there was a limit to how useful it could be.
"The lines [on the maps] would be the previous terminus points," he says. "But the landscape was so rough that I couldn't go to all of these places. It could be in the middle of a river or a lake or up the side of a cliff. ... I wasn't able to follow the termini precisely like I'd planned because real world obstacles were a lot more difficult in Alaska than anywhere I've been.
"Alaskans also don't think of them as issues. One forest ranger told us that crossing 30-foot logs over a raging river wouldn't be 'that bad.' We didn't do it!"
But the quest to find, and to walk along, previous glacial termini — successful or not — is in itself part of his art.
"Anytime I'm walking these sort of spaces, it's sort of a performance," Lee says. "I'm looking for [my photographic and videography work] to be the final product, but they're also a documentation of the performance to an extent."
Any way you look at it, there's a lot of work — footwork and otherwise — involved in creating this type of art.