Upside Down Arctic Realities

Muse Says Menil's Arctic Exhibit Spans Centuries by Bloomberg

When winds rise up and powdery snow fills the air, there is neither up nor down and the traveler is left blind white.

Edmund Carpenter, Upside Down Arctic Realities Exhibit Catalog

Last Sunday was a typical hot and humid summer day in Houston, but if you were at the Menil Collection you could still experience the Arctic. Upside Down Realities was a truly exceptional exhibit that evoked philosophical thought about existence, consciousness and human experience. It was on display at the Menil from April 15, 2011 until July 17, 2011.


The exhibit was curated by Edmund Snow Carpenter, an anthropologist who researched indigenous cultures with oral traditions, particularly those of the arctic regions, over the past sixty years.
The objects displayed are rare artifacts from indigenous arctic cultures from ancient periods, ranging from 1000 BC to 1400 AD. Most of the objects are small in size and made out of walrus ivory. These include everyday objects, shamanic amulets, funerary offerings, hunting tools, and other small works of art. Also included is a selection of nineteenth-century Yup’ik masks from Alaska.

Installation view of the Menil Collection exhibit Upside Down Arctic Realities
Photo: Paul Hester

The exhibit space was thoughtfully designed by Doug Wheeler, a “Light and Space” artist selected for the task by Carpenter. “I make things that you experience, and then it’s in your mind,” Wheeler has said of his work. “We all have firsthand experiences, and those are the ones we don’t forget. They stay with us and hopefully they’re meaningful enough that they’re with you for the rest of your life.”

As I was viewing the exhibit on its last day, I noticed that the space was being prepared for some kind of event. Black chairs were arranged in a circular pattern and a speaker’s podium was set up. A museum worker informed me that Carpenter, the curator of the exhibit, had died two weeks earlier and that there was going to be a reading from his book Eskimo Realities.

Reversal symbolizes the departure of the soul from this world and its arrival in the next. There, the soul awaits rebirth, head down, in the position of delivery.

Edmund Carpenter, Upside Down Arctic Realities Exhibit Catalog

Some great images of the exhibit can be viewed on the LRLA Blog.

More of Carpenter’s curatorial work is still on display in the Menil Collection. Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, installed within the museum’s Surrealism galleries, is the result of a collaboration with former Menil director Paul Winkler in 1999. It is a collection of ethnographic objects that inspired Surrealist artists.

By Nurit Shell
Published July 23, 2011
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.