Arctic Exhibit In Texas Highlights A Lifetime Of Work

  • The Menil exhibit took out interior walls to create an enormous space that mimics the Arctic environment. The walls and floors are painted white, neon lighting creates northern-extreme daylight, and the floors curve a bit for a 'snowbank' effect.
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    The Menil exhibit took out interior walls to create an enormous space that mimics the Arctic environment. The walls and floors are painted white, neon lighting creates northern-extreme daylight, and the floors curve a bit for a 'snowbank' effect.
    Credit:Paul Hester/Amanda Steen
  • Okvik, Old Bering Sea, Bird Head, c 200 BC, walrus ivory
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    Okvik, Old Bering Sea, Bird Head, c 200 BC, walrus ivory
    Amanda Steen
  • Female figure, Okvik, walrus ivory, Old Bering Sea, c 200 BC
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    Female figure, Okvik, walrus ivory, Old Bering Sea, c 200 BC
    Amanda Steen
  • 2781: "Tomanik" ("Wind-Maker") mask, Yup'ik, Southwest Alaska, 19th C
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    2781: "Tomanik" ("Wind-Maker") mask, Yup'ik, Southwest Alaska, 19th C
    Amanda Steen

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While the weather is sultry in Houston, the Menil Collection has a cool exhibit about ancient Arctic cultures.

"Upside Down" is a rare display of artifacts from a place where there is still much to be discovered.

Show Re-Creates Arctic Environment

When people picture archaeologists hard at work in a far-flung dig, they might imagine the deserts of the Middle East, the ruins of South America or the great savannah in Africa. But in the early 1950s, archaeologist and anthropologist Ted Carpenter created a unique trail of discovery by going alone to the Canadian Arctic to live with a family of Inuit hunters.

Edmund "Ted" Carpenter on a ship from a Greenland expedition in the 1990s.

hide captionEdmund "Ted" Carpenter on a ship from a Greenland expedition in the 1990s.

Adelaide de Menil

"[He went] there with nothing and [survived] on the land with an Arctic family," says Sean Mooney, curator of the show. "And he wintered in Arctic Canada in 1951-52 during a period of extreme famine."

Mooney helped Carpenter create the exhibit, which was first staged at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris before coming to Houston. The show itself exists inside a re-creation of Arctic color, light and space.

"In winter, the horizon recedes," Carpenter wrote about life in the Canadian Arctic. "There is no perspective, no outline, nothing the eye can cling to — a land without bottom or edge."

To re-create that environment in the museum, Kristina Van Dyke, the museum's curator of collections and research, says they had to knock down all the walls and raise the floor

"So when you enter the space what you see is just a vast white space and the white floor actually goes all the way to the edge of the wall and starts to curve up towards the wall," she says

Finding Sight In Blinding White

Anavik wearing snow goggles made of wood at Banks Peninsula, Bathurst Inlet, Northwest Territories (Nunavut), Canada, in May of 1916.
Rudolph M. Anderson/Courtesy of Canadian Museum of Civilization

The Menil exhibit tries to re-create the limitless feeling of the Arctic where the horizon is hard to determine and it's easy to get disoriented by the blinding snow. For centuries, different Inuit cultures have used "snow goggles" to help them see in such a bright white environment. The narrow slits constrict the wearer's field of vision and reduce light to the optic nerve. Similar goggles are still used today.

Source: Vancouver Maritime Museum

Part of the exhibition is a circular maze of cases of ancient Arctic figures, ornaments and tools made from walrus ivory, bone, wood and metal. Artifacts from Dorset, Ekven, Ipiutak and other Old Bering Sea cultures are displayed.

"There's a Maori pendant where the attachment to the pendant is actually on the figure's feet. So when the object is hung on a necklace, the pendant hangs facing down upside down," she says. "And you as a wearer bring it up, you put it in your hand and bring it up in order to orient it right side up."

Thus the exhibition's name: "Upside Down." Many of the artifacts relate to transformation, and Van Dyke says they weren't carved to be displayed on a table or inside a case but to be handled, twisted and turned.

"If you look down at the object you see what looks like a human figure with the face turned up and arms extended," she says. "Now if you look at the object in profile you see what looks like a seal with seal flippers. And this is an important idea. It goes back to the idea of imminence; one thing can change into another."

As beautiful and unique as the ancient artifacts are, the exhibition space itself gives them a run for their money. Speakers hanging from the ceiling move sounds of the Arctic wind and Eskimo chants in waves across the large and largely empty white space. Visitors have to put on booties or take off their shoes so as not to scuff the pristine white floor. As you approach a far wall, the floor — almost undetected — becomes a wall of ceremonial dance masks floating shadowless in space.

"To me this is the most effective and beautiful part of Doug's installation, this corner," she says. "Because you're having an almost out-of-body experience; you really can't tell where one thing starts and another ends."

The exhibition is ending on a sad note, however. Ted Carpenter died July 1 at the age of 88 in Southampton, N.Y. He leaves behind both a collection of ancient artifacts and intellectual insights into the nature of these Arctic tribes.

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