Art from the Arctic

Clockwise from top: Bird Head, Herring Gull; Head with Central "Eye"; and Female Figure. All are from 250 BC-100 AD.
David Heald

You don't need a parka at The Menil Collection's stunning "Upside Down: Arctic Realities," but venturing inside does require special equipment. You need booties — the hospital kind that you put over your shoes — although the ever-stylish Menil provides white ones instead of hospital blue.

Curated by noted anthropologist Edmund Carpenter and originally organized at the Musée du Quai Branly, this exhibition presents more than 300 objects, most dating from 1000 BC to 1400 AD, as well as a collection of 19th-century ceremonial masks. And the Menil's crack installation team, working with artist Doug Wheeler, pioneer of the 1960s Southern California "Light and Space" movement, created a stunning, entirely white environment in which to display the exhibition's arctic artifacts — hence the booties.

The museum's dark wood floors have been covered over with sheets of white-painted wood. The walls and floor have been curved, and inside the room, it's easy to imagine you are at the top of the earth in a haze of snow. You expect to see your breath in front of you. (One of Wheeler's early ideas was to have a wall of mist that you walked through as you entered the gallery; it was nixed because of artwork/humidity issues.)


The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Upside Down: Arctic Realities"

Through July 17.

Light glows from the base of one wall like the low, feeble glow of the sun from below the horizon during winter. It also subtly radiates from behind a series of squares cut out in another wall. The openings themselves could be James Turrell-esque artworks, but instead, each frames a 19th-century mask from the Yup'ik of Southern Alaska.

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Indigenous arctic peoples are sometimes collectively referred to as Eskimos, and that is how the Menil is handling it, but the Inuits of Canada and Greenland, one of the group's four main branches, consider the term derogatory. The other branches are the aforementioned Yup'ik of Southern Alaska, the Siberian Yup'ik of Siberia and St. Lawrence Island, and the Inupiat of Northern Alaska.

Yup'ik masks made their way to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their inventiveness strongly influenced modern artists, the surrealists in particular. Not surprisingly, the shamanistic masks, which meld human features with animal forms, fit in well with the surrealist origins of the Menil.

The works artfully manifest the connectedness between the human and animal worlds — or rather, humans' dependence on animals, which is at the basis of life in the arctic. A toothy human face emerges from a sea otter in one mask, while the head of a loon protrudes from the chin of another face in another work. Salmon, muskrat, walrus, caribou and whale elements are also incorporated into the masks, which were originally used as a part of storytelling dance ceremonies.

In the center of the room, long, curved vitrines are concentrically arranged, illuminating the tiny objects they contain on slabs of frosted Plexigas that almost seem to levitate in the room. Looking at these artifacts, most of which are carved from antlers or walrus tusks, you see that none stand up — they weren't made to be placed on a flat surface and displayed. These are objects to be held in the hand and carried with you. The arctic environment does not allow for a hugely material culture. The objects include sleek, tactile carvings of seals from Paleo-eskimos, tiny human figures from 200 BC, and beautifully inscribed harpoon tips and stabilizers from the Ekven site in Russia.

The way the objects are displayed is wonderfully free of the stuffy natural history museum style that has traditionally been the lot of non-western art. The installation of the work is worth the trip in itself.

The Menil doesn't do didactic labels or wall text. It just lets you immerse yourself in the visual, and that works well here. But at some point, if you want more information, you will need to turn to the exhibition brochures, which include an excerpt of an excellent catalog essay by Carpenter on indigenous arctic peoples. The catalog states that Carpenter has made pioneering contributions as "an art historian and collector, field ethnographer, archaeologist, visual anthropologist, film-maker and co-founder of modern media theory [with Marshall McLuhan]." This is not hyperbole — he's a pretty amazing guy who did fieldwork with the Aivilik, an Inunit people, covering the winter famine of 1951-52 and writing about them in the 1973 book Eskimo Realities, described as a classic.

There is, however, one aspect of "Arctic Realities" that I found puzzling. There is a display of pieces from a necklace that looks like it was comprised of silhouettes of Venus of Willendorf, the famed Paleolithic figurine of a woman with huge breasts and butt and tiny little ankles. Surrounding these objects are little stippled illustrations of similarly fecund-looking objects from other cultures.  And then there is a drawing of an actual person, Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman.

Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman taken from South Africa in the early 19th century and cruelly exhibited in Europe, where people gawked at her large derriere and, apparently, labia. After she died, her skeleton and preserved brain and genitalia were displayed at Paris's Musée de l'Homme, until they were removed in 1974. It's a really horrific episode of exploitation.

Apparently the image was placed here because of Baartman's physical similarities to the Willendorf, but I think it's pretty tasteless. There is no critique or commentary about the image in the brochures. Carpenter is almost 90, and maybe he just doesn't get the inappropriateness of including the image. But if that is some generational holdover, that is one of the only ones.

Carpenter has intimate knowledge of the lives and hardships of arctic peoples and describes their way of life with intense perceptiveness and empathy. He tells us that in the Inuktitut language, "to make poetry" is the same as "to breathe." He describes a world where every adult male is a skilled ivory carver and "art and life are interchangeable," of a people navigating though zero-visibility fog using smell and sound. His descriptions of life in these seemingly barren, snowy expanses are incredibly evocative and hauntingly beautiful. Like "Arctic Realities," they offer a poignant and nuanced glimpse into a world most of us could never imagine.

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1533 Sul Ross
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