About a month ago, the Menil Collection opened a new show — Upside Down : Arctic Realities — and GAD and I decided to visit.
I am going to preface this by saying I am not terribly keen on indigenous art and don’t necessarily seek it out unless I am with GAD who adores looking at wooden totems. Additionally, I don’t know anything about Arctic social mores, mythology or even fashion sensibilities.
I approached the show and had to don hospital booties to preserve the exhibition floor. Arriving inside, I saw a space within the Menil that I had never experienced before — a dark gallery bathed in pure white, a terrestrial glow emanating from various points in the room, a layout even more minimal than usual. Honestly, it looked like there wasn’t much in there save a few back-lit masks hanging in side wall cutouts, crescent-shaped Herman Miller cases and weird sound/noise/music gurgling overhead. Truth be told, I breezed through the acrylic table-tops which housed bits and pieces of unrecognizable wooden things. I looked desperately for an explanation title “plate” but found nothing. Frustrating. Here were all these tiny little hand carved wooden things and I didn’t know what they did. I felt like a failure — was I already supposed to know all of this? Time elapsed in room — 5 minutes.
Leaving, GAD and I agreed that this space was glorious from an architectural perspective but it did nothing for the art. What had we seen? Isn’t it weird to take “bits and pieces” that would have been seen in the context of a very warm and lush igloo (?) and put them in a room that looks like it could be in the next Star Trek movie? Was the space just conceptual architectural decadence that the poor Arctic peoples had been victim to?
Next day I decided to read through the booklet that accompanied the exhibit and it seems as if I missed the entire point of the show. First some basic details: the show was curated by Edmund Snow Carpenter who has been doing research on these people for the past 60 years. He worked with artist Douglas Wheeler and sound artist Philippe Le Goff to realize the complete exhibition space.
Seems that Carpenter’s concept was just as much about providing an opportunity to challenge us as people and the way we see art as it was to see the over 300 objects included in the show. For example, in the monograph, his description of the tundra as a white space for cognition outside of “observation and measurement of physical phenomenon” is key to understanding the exhibition design itself. The all white space that I sped through was supposed to encourage deeper thinking not frantic scrambling for data. Just as the Eskimos would have cherished an object whose visual appearance remained static despite winds and snow, I too should have delighted in having the opportunity to focus on just one thing at a time.
Further, Carpenter tells us that culturally there is no “distinction made between utilitarian and decorative objects” for these people. Every piece has an element of creation and art inexorably linked to it, each small item carved with both technical and narrative proficiency. These are ways of thinking and doing that we do not cultivate. If we want art in our everyday life, we buy something from Target designed by an artist, right?
In general, I think I should go again and see if I can unravel more of Carpenter’s phenomenological anthropology and also see if I can slow down enough to figure out what all that wooden stuff is. Beside, I will get to wear booties again!
As usual, some of the best art experiences I encounter are because someone else challenges me to see something that I wouldn’t have picked out for myself. And so I thank GAD and Edmund Carpenter for that.
In honor of cold weather art, here are a few videos from Sigur Ros and Bjork.