Cold Fête

A fund-raiser for an unusual art space gives new meaning to the term "frozen dinner"

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant dangers. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. -- Sir Ernest Shackleton

In 1914, celebrated polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out with a crew of 27 men to cross the Antarctic continent. This was to be the last great polar journey of the "Heroic Age of Exploration," a grand feat for ironhearted men, but the mission quickly became a fool's errand. Plagued by bad weather and worse luck, Shackleton's ship -- suitably named Endurance for his family's motto, "By endurance we conquer" -- was marooned in the midst of an ice floe less than a day's sail from the frozen continent, and there it stayed for 10 frigid months until the pressure and tides of the freezing sea crushed her wooden frame to splinters. For nearly a full year more, the crew survived, making their way to the forsaken rock of Elephant Island, where they waited while Shackleton and five others rowed 800 miles in a 22-foot lifeboat, through the world's roughest sea, to the nearest whaling station. No one should have survived, but, remarkably, the entire crew hung on, and Shackleton has become better known for the triumph of his failure than for his many successes.

"Shackleton is sort of an icon for tenacity of will in the face of sheer impossibility," says Jim Mason, sitting in a makeshift office inside the Shipyard, a newly developed "open build space" in Berkeley that has become an industrial Valhalla for Mason and at least 25 other large-scale machine-art and kinetic-sculpture builders in the Bay Area.

Tom McCarty and his ice necktie.
Paul Trapani
Tom McCarty and his ice necktie.
Shipyard guests chill while waiting for dinner.
Paul Trapani
Shipyard guests chill while waiting for dinner.

"But the Shipyard is a gift from the sky."

The Shipyard is an 11,000-square-foot lot comprised of a small warehouse and a circle of 26 seaworthy cargo containers, piled two stories high around a 5,000-square-foot "courtyard" -- the open space where goliaths might be born.

"The original idea was to have one big project in each container," says Mason, whose own ventures include a giant flame-spitting blender made from a V-8 engine, a 57,000-pound sundial made of ice, a margarita maker/tractor that throws a 100-foot flame, and the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford. "Now, instead of a project, there's an artist in each container.

"The task now is to make everything look pretty and bring it all up to code so no one in the neighborhood will think it's a meth lab."

Thus, "Shackleton's Shipyard Fundraiser and Feast." The dinner invitation, like Shackleton's newspaper ad, warns of inhospitable conditions, arctic weather, and heroic payoff. Recommendations for the journey are donations, promptness, good gloves, and insulated shoes.

"Jim Mason is a little like Shackleton," says one of the 100 guests bundled up against the cold in the Shipyard courtyard. "He thinks really big. And he always evades total disaster at the very last moment."

"I might be cold and starving to death," says 36-year-old adventurer Jay Kravitz, clad in a long coat and large fur hat, "but I trust Captain Mason. I'd follow him anywhere."

As Jericho Reesespins arcane selections from his aptly titled DJ set Dead Man's Record Show, folks huddle around the Firefall, a large birdbath of flaming water created by Shipyard artist Kiki Pettit. Firelight flickers across the red steel doors of the cargo containers, which completely block out the rest of the world. Folks scamper up and down ladders to peer into the studios of artists on the second story, while others discuss explorations in temperature.

"When I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire," says Vanessa Kuemmerle, a siren in white fur who belongs in a ski lodge in some James Bond flick, "I used to wait for the school bus in 20-below weather wearing motorcycle boots and a biker jacket, with wet hair. It was so cold my hair would freeze and break off in chunks. That was cold, but I still feel colder here in the Bay Area. I'm always cold here."

Dylan Scott, who wears a shirt with the slogan "I am Canadian" accompanied by a picture of a tiny "attack" beaver, shrugs his shoulders. "In Ontario, at 30 below, you can pee against the telephone pole and it will freeze there. We used to make pee-cicles."

Feeling the chill, some of the wool-and-fur-clad company -- including a giant plush penguin and a "bi-polar" bear -- make their way over to the warm wet bar, where a grizzly-voiced man named Flashand a desert Amazon in tight suede prepare mulled wine with red-hot pokers.

"It's important to have the right supplies," says Christina Kurjan, a rantipole wrapped in snow-leopard fun fur who once forded a river in Alaska. Her companions, Jim Feuhrerand a man in a pith helmet going by the name Reckless, agree as Feuhrer recalls a Vermont winter when the snow was too cold for skiing.

"You couldn't slide," says Feuhrer. "We weren't heavy or warm enough to melt the thin layer of ice it requires to ski. We had to walk, and the snow squeaked with a very high pitch. It was like walking on mice. A friend of mine thought, "At least the beer is OK,' so he popped one open and quickly learned about vapor pressure. It just froze solid."

Despite the fire, wine, and conversation, folks begin grumbling as the dinner hour comes and goes.

"Shackleton's crew didn't eat each other, but we might," says a man in sailor's garb just as Shipyard artist Tom McCarty, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, emerges from the warehouse wearing a full snowsuit with hood and goggles and a necktie made of ice.

We are invited to walk the gangplank.

Inside the colorless warehouse, black-and-white images of the Antarctic, taken by Endurance crew member Frank Hurley, cover the ceilings and walls, enveloping the room in hoarfrost. Plates made of ice sit on the white tablecloths with silverware, white cloth napkins, and crystal wineglasses; centerpieces of ice flicker with candlelight. Whale baleen and glacial columns rise out of the floor and stage, where Cotton Candy Cabaretperforms sweet, frosty songs dressed in puffy hues of pastel pink and baby blue. A dozen diners seat themselves at a long banquet table inside the refrigeration car, which is attached to the building for chilling intentions. I sit on the main floor between film maven Molli Amara Simon, who occasionally rises to change the dramatic images overhead, and Brian Doherty, a journalist from Los Angeles.

As the first dish is served -- "Arctic Penguin Toasties," which taste a lot like marinated medallions of tuna spread over gourmet greens -- glasses of blue alcohol are offered for setting afire, and the narration of the Endurance begins.

"Changing the name of a ship is like changing the name of a racehorse," says author Don Herron. "You just don't do it. But a better name might have been the Reluctant."

The audience members laugh and wrap their fingers around the icy silverware, marveling at the roughneck culinary skills of Cafe Lolaowner Joanna Schneider.

Collapsing Silence, a marvelous butoh troupe whose clay-white faces and wispy attire dissolve into the white of the room, enters as the Endurance crumples in the images above our heads. "Roast Husky" is served, a leg of lamb so tender the meat falls off the bone as it is placed before me. Herron speaks of gutting sea lions and eating the fish found inside. The heat of the animal meat begins to melt my ice plate. Folks watch as a pond of ice water seeps from beneath the tables and covers the cold gray concrete. Mr. Luckytakes the stage to perform "My Way" for the triumphant arrival of Shackleton at the whaling station, just as dessert is served, a slightly melted mound of ice cream with small cookies.

"It's not cold enough in here," says Doherty, taking off his gloves, hat, and scarf. Certainly not as cold as an expedition to Antarctica, but cold enough for dinner.

As the meal comes to a close, a pillar of ice blocks collapses and most of the other frozen accouterments begin to list and lean. The timing is near perfect as Mason explains that Shackleton returned home safely, only to suffer a nervous breakdown a few years later. Mason does not mention the failed ice-and-fire chimney upon which he had earlier slaved, and no one misses it. Guests are invited outside to marvel at the warmth created by Shipyard artists: a fire-breathing motorcycle dragon designed by Amacker Bullwinkleand DJ Bartlett, a spherical tangle of tubes lit with flame by R. Scott Bartlett, a rolling desert vehicle by Ryon Gesink, and a copper bird woman by Sarah Kotamani, who is the only artist to install windows in her cargo container. Flames lick the night sky as the Mermenbegin their sea-fueled set.

"I cannot go back to Rome," says Shipyard artist Yael Braha, who came to the Bay Area for a graphic arts convention and stayed to pursue her true love. "Where could I do this? Nowhere else."

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