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'Pearls of the Planet: The Arctic' Reveals Life in Frozen North

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Still image from the film "Pearls of the Planet: The Arctic."

Inside a small, glacier-like structure called the Zen Den, Arctic ice floats serenely across a television screen. Beluga whales swim towards the cameras as the howl of the ocean wind and a squealing whale song fill this tiny space. It is hypnotizing.

Elsewhere inside Annenberg Space for Photography's Skylight Studios, a polar bear struggles to make its way across a frozen terrain, slipping through cracks only to pull itself up back onto the ice. The largest species of bears on the planet, who can weigh in at 1,700 pounds according the information in this exhibition, are the stars of "Pearls of the Planet," but there are cameo appearances from the arctic hare, snow owl, arctic fox and other creatures native to this remote, northern portion of the globe.

"Pearls of the Planet," is a multi-tiered project spearheaded by Charles Annenberg Weingarten's explore.org. Explore sets up cameras in far-flung locations, allowing viewers access to everything from pandas in Sichuan to bison in Saskatchewan. The first of what is intended to be a series of "Pearls of the Planet" events, focuses on the rugged yet breathtakingly beautiful Arctic and includes both the exhibition at Skylight Studios, which runs until March 20, 2016, and a corresponding KCET special that airs December 2 at 10 p.m.

Charles Annenberg Weingarten. | Photo: Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography.
Charles Annenberg Weingarten. | Photo: Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography.   

"It's a really sacred, gorgeous ecosystem with such diversity and it's also under so much scrutiny because of issues like global warming and climate change. It's kind of hard to ignore if you have an interest in environmental issues," says Weingarten, who has made several trips to various different locations in the vast Arctic region. "What you see in the film is some of the beauty of the Arctic."

The videos were shot during several explore trips and includes landscapes from Canada, Alaska and Greenland. Some of the footage stems from explore's live cams. Weingarten opted to buck the trend of super-short videos in favor of longer ones where people can immerse themselves in "the Arctic adventure." It's definitely a nice escape from all the other stresses that people experience in life," says Weingarten.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a small crowd fills Skylight Studios. Some pose for photos with a cardboard cutout of a polar bear. Others curl up on fuzzy white beanbags inside private spaces and on the main floor as they watch the videos loop. It's easy to lose track of time in here. That's part of the point. Weingarten envisioned the exhibition as a way of bringing the "natural cathedral experiences" he has had on his own journeys to people in the city. He likens the show to a "church or a synagogue," where the experience can "help you heal, escape stress, educate, but through nature."

Photo: Adrian Sidney, for the Annenberg Space for Photography.
Photo: Adrian Sidney for the Annenberg Space for Photography.   

Central to the experience is the score. Instead of backing the footage with music, "Pearls of the Planet" relies on the sounds of the region, from the growl of bears to the roar of the wind. "I believe that nature is the greatest symphony on the planet and we often overlook it and put in music," says Weingarten. For these videos, the team captured field recordings that a sound designer would "clean up" for use in the films. (As it turns out, Wenigarten notes, the engines of the tundra buggies used for transportation are pretty loud.) "I really wanted it to feel pure, like you're there, and let the audio of nature, the symphony of that region, be the dominant guide," he says.

The videos were designed not just for view inside the exhibition. People can also watch the footage online and Weingarten suggests letting it loop in the background. "I find it really meditative and peaceful to kind of connect with this region," he says. "The sound is really in a part of this experience."

Photo: Adrian Sidney, for the Annenberg Space for Photography.
Photo: Adrian Sidney for the Annenberg Space for Photography.   

With "Pearls of the Planet," explore takes viewers into a remote part of the world that many will never experience in their own travels. "It might be a better experience through the live cam," says Weingarten of the Arctic, adding that people can see the beauty of the region without feeling the frigid temperatures.

"Hopefully, the end goal is to fall in love with the world again," says Weingarten. Making connections to a place like the Arctic could have long-term benefits too. "People take care of that which they feel emotionally connected to," says Weingarten. "It's really that basic."

He continues, "So by actually presenting a world that's void of global issues and just allows you to see how sacred and pristine... it kind of takes your breath away." Weingarten says he hopes that people will find that same sense of awe by experiencing "Pearls of the Planet," that they will have a moment to say, "Wow, there is something on this planet that still looks and feels like this."

Photo: Adrian Sidney, for the Annenberg Space for Photography.
Photo: Adrian Sidney for the Annenberg Space for Photography.   
Photo: Adrian Sidney, for the Annenberg Space for Photography.
Photo: Adrian Sidney for the Annenberg Space for Photography.   


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