Upside Down: Arctic Realities

The Menil, Houston

Through July 17
by Rachel Cook

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      Upside Down: Arctic Realities, exhibition view
      Installation photo credit: © Hester + Hardaway Photographers Fayetteville Texas
      Courtesy of The Menil Collection

      View Gallery

      The transformative interaction between artist and material can be traced as a timeless phenomenon. A scholar, filmmaker and anthropologist specializing in Arctic Canada and Siberia, Edmund Snow Carpenter decided to emphasize this interactive relationship in the exhibition Upside Down: Arctic Realities at the Menil Collection. Instead of focusing on the traditional display of hundreds of finished objects from the Arctic regions of Eastern Canada, Alaska, Siberia and various groups living in New Guinea, the exhibition emphatically emphasizes the experience of viewing. Its structure stresses sensation over representation and immersion over the removed modernist point of view through the activation of all the senses within the space.

      Within the exhibition’s spatial alterations and display mechanics, emphasis is placed on the viewer's interaction with the gallery site. The viewer assumes an inter-dependent spectatorial relationship to the installation. The experiential audience becomes the object and activates the work, which raises some curatorial and artistic questions regarding authorship. Carpenter’s display tactics offer multiple authorial tensions, from presenting the hundreds of shamanic amulets, masks, funerary offerings and hunting tools alongside the everyday objects from the same makers, to inserting these objects within a light and sound installation by artist Douglas Wheeler. Part of a group of artists from the ‘60s who used light, space and perception as material, such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell, Wheeler creates walls and display cases at the Menil that mimic the horizonless Arctic landscape.

      It is hard to pinpoint the blurry line between where Wheeler’s installation ends and the historical presentation of these Arctic objects begins, or how the curatorial structure of display calls these authorial roles into question. During the Arctic winter, Carpenter says, there is no line dividing earth and sky, no perspective, no outline—a land without bottom or edge. Accordingly, the whole room is drenched in white: not stark, glaring or glossy, but a soft, calm white, almost a blanket that you can pull over your eyes and still see the sunlight peeking through. The display cases, while functional, are almost modernist cubes unto themselves. Built as curved Plexiglas objects, they appear almost completely transparent from a distance. Upon closer inspection, one can spot a thin white matte surface in the middle of each case where the figurines, tiny vessels, or tools are placed, causing them to appear to float. Experiencing a miniaturized aerial view of an Arctic landscape, viewers walk around in a circle gazing down at the tiny carved specimens with a sense of wonderment.

      Carpenter is interested in how human beings conceptualize and process their relation to one another and to the land they inhabit. His ideas and arguments come from his influential 1973 book Eskimo Realities, where he writes that the “process of creating quotidian objects helps to shape one’s sensory perceptions of the landscape, spiritual orientation, and attitude towards the living and imagined universe.” Taken at face value, Carpenter and Wheeler’s intervention has attempted to recreate the Eskimo imagination by bringing the interconnections to the forefront, linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourses in physical space. So how does this artistic intervention and curatorial approach operate with the Arctic objects themselves? What happens when the material for an artist to work with becomes the site of an exhibition space, or when the curatorial strategy turns the artist’s work into a prop instead of an active catalyst?

      Just as Carpenter has an interest in the impact of modern media on these traditional cultures whose artifacts are on display, the contemporary art audience understands the curatorial “space activation” techniques used in Upside Down: Arctic Realities. They recognize Wheeler and Carpenter’s influence on trying to free the objects from their typical association by placing them in a different or unnerving context, as a way to shed new light on their reading or bring to light some perceived universal set of ideas. All contemporary art curators use similar staging techniques: whether it is taking a historical time period, philosophical text, or a classic American novel as a point of departure, all try to present a constellation of discrete ideas and objects as a unified spatial experience.

      Utilizing and collaborating with contemporary artists to assist in the presentation historical material has been in vogue in the contemporary art museum world for a while, but how successful are these collaborations? John Baldessari’s exhibition design for Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images at LACMA in 2006-7 is one example that comes to mind. I wonder, if in the end, Baldessari’s design didn’t produce a different cliché of exhibition-as-funhouse, through the theatrical, decorative elements such as the cloud shapes on the carpet or the images of highways as wallpaper on the ceiling. Instead of the original intention to reinvigorating Magritte’s work and humor by utilizing various signatures shapes and images from the paintings as display or costume elements. The most successful collaborations might happen when authorial visibility is hardly detectable, or when the question of what constitutes collaboration gets brought to the surface. Robert Irwin’s collaboration with the grounds and architecture at Dia: Beacon is the prime example; nothing actually appears to be there. Except Irwin’s hand is everywhere. In true Dia fashion, rather than just hire an architecture firm for the renovations, they asked Irwin to be the mastermind behind the planning of the building alongside a firm. Primarily credited with the landscaping, Irwin designed just about everything contained in your viewing experience, from the way the light moves through the space, to controlling your pathway you choose to walk through the space. In this way, Irwin questions exactly where the boundary lies in the role of the artist today.

      Maybe Carpenter chose such a dramatic installation because in his perceptual plan, “seeing is believing.” Instead he might remember to follow the Aivilik people’s connection to oral history: to trust the ear more than the eyes. I am interested in challenging curatorial practice to be more of an embodied practice; one that could follow the Inuktitut language’s connection between poetry, breath and the soul, instead of illustrating the idea the exhibition could enact it. 

      A native of Houston, Texas, Rachel Cook is currently pursuing a Master's candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

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