Hot time in the city? Stay cool at Menil Collection's Arctic Realities
What is it to have a mind of winter? You might ask the nearest snowman. Or you might head to the Menil Collection for the gift of snow in Upside Down: Arctic Realities, which runs through July 17.
Inspired by decades of the passionate investigations of anthropologist, tribal arts interpreter, and media expert Edmund Snow Carpenter, Upside Down is a wholly composed environment designed by light sculptor Douglas Wheeler to highlight an extraordinary, historically-expansive selection of Arctic art from Siberia, Alaska, and Eastern Canada.
Arctic Realities is not merely a show. It is an experience rare even by the standards of the inimitable Menil Collection. Houstonians should count themselves lucky to be treated to such a singular encounter with the traces of ancient Bering Sea cultures and the living rituals of their descendants in a space truly foreign to humid Houston.
The utterly unique space of the exhibit is equally the product of the Arctic Circle and the mind of the visionary Edmund Carpenter. You can experience Carpenter’s vision more directly in the extraordinary exhibition catalogue to which he contributed several essays, and if you hit your local library for a copy of his out-of-print masterpiece Eskimo Realities.
Before entering the exhibit, you’ll be asked to don surgical booties. Don’t resist. The purity of the space is critical to your experience, as is the soundscape designed by Philippe Le Goff to buffet viewers with a sweep of wind and snow and the rhythmic voices of Inuit throat singing. The room is more than a marvel and stuns viewers with a shock of white. Dazzled like a traveler in a haze of Arctic snow, you’ll want to return at least a few times before the exhibition closes.
What once was a series of ordinary rooms has become a single space coated and curving continuously within the space of the gallery. A white lip covers a series of light installations on the floor, giving the impression of a room virtually without edges or corners.
Crystalline glass cases with milky translucent lights are arranged in roughly concentric if irregular patterns to hold a series of extraordinary objects, while a wall of recessed spaces frame masks as if they were staring out from a portrait gallery or a high-end peep show. On a screen over the entrance to Upside Down play excerpts from an incomplete if newly restored version of Carpenter’s 1957 Dorset Film, which documents the Dorset People.
To start with the cases is to feel like Cartier lost out by devoting attention to mere diamonds. The paradox of this assortment of tools, devotional objects, and animal and humanoid forms is the way such tiny objects could feel so massive, portentous, and overwhelming.
The artifacts date between 200 BC and 1400 AD, and although at times they can feel somewhat alien, there is deep pathos in miniature birds, human figures woven into pendants to hang upside-down around the neck, a delicate bear fetus, carefully crafted chain links, and an intricately carved effigy of a seal.
At times the border between sculpture and tool is as happily unclear as the border between animal and human. Even more moving is a series of human faces and figures. The scale of these is also incredibly small, which seems suited to the place people occupy in an unrelenting climate. The faces are elongated and the noses prominent while eyes and limbs seem to recede from view.
Although everything in room feels miraculous and strange—even the sheer amount of space—it’s hard not to be utterly captivated by the Yup’ik masks, many of which date from the late 19th and early 20th century and which were constructed by skilled artisans often under the direction of shamans and used in a variety of dancing and singing rituals.
The objects are totemic, narrative, and often witness the blending of human and animal form or the blending of boats and marine life, as if we are all creatures of the sea and tied together as such. Wheeler’s light sculpting is particularly striking, with several of the masks staring out from a haunting blue square of light.
Don’t miss the iconic “Sea Otter Mask with Spirit Face,” which features a green otter with splayed, swimming limbs and a face planted on his back. Often the simplest works were my favorites, such as the “Sculpin Mask,” which features a large whale smiling with bared teeth and a set of oars extended from what might be a series of benches for rowers carved down the spine. Two delicate white feathers fan out from the tail.
Like this whale, so many of the masks seemed to be making contact with the viewer. As I walked past a few times I could swear they were not grimacing but rather smiling, just a little, as if they knew something as old and as secret as the snow.
Pausing in front of them, I swear I could almost hear what it was.