An Arctic Blast from the Past

Menil Collection curator Sean Mooney keeps things cool in the summer with MicroCosmos.

By Katricia Lang August 14, 2015

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Harpoon Counterweight (Winged Object)

Menil Collection curator Sean Mooney opens his shutters to shine a bright light on the “Treasure Room,” his office and storage place for hundreds of pieces from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art. For the upcoming MicroCosmos exhibit, which opens Saturday, Aug 29, Mooney focuses on ancient artifacts of the Yup’ik people of coastal Alaska, descendants of Old Bering Sea Paleo-Eskimo culture.

Mooney has chosen darkness to encourage a more detailed contemplative viewing of the palm-sized pieces that span from 250 BCE–1000 CE and include figurines and hunting instruments, as well as 19th century storytelling masks. He wants the visitor to see the pieces as they would have been seen by their bearer—in the Arctic in the dead of winter.

“It’s an additional layer of encountering something to think about—not just where it was made and what it is,” he says, “but how it was made, by whom, at what time of year, and what kind of climate.”

The pieces, carved and sculpted from walrus ivory, revolve around hunting technology. The Yup’ik people considered humans and animals spiritual equals, but depended on the resources of arctic animals like seals and walruses to survive. This provided an interesting dilemma and an even more interesting resolution for Mooney.

“Everything that you do as a hunter is about ensuring that you’ve paid respect and you've lived harmoniously with nature,” he notes. “Part of that system is the making of beautiful objects. It’s the rare instance in a culture where the making of art is critical to survival. The more beautiful your [tools] are, the better a hunter you are.”

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Head from Human Doll Figure, with Tattoo Patterning

Mooney faced several challenges when curating the exhibit. Anthropological texts would label some pieces as “objects of unknown use” and art collectors would incorrectly categorize hunting tools as amulets. Perhaps worst of all, the native New Yorker had to learn about fishing from scratch. As a result, Mooney met with countless scholars and experts to fill in the gaps.

According to Mooney, all of these so-called difficulties are the source of his joy. He finds pleasure in uncovering the mysteries of each object by contemplating, writing, exploring and discussing each object, he says. “It’s such a privilege to be able to focus on this one collection.”

Aug 29–Feb 21. Free. Wed–Sun 11–7.  The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St. 713-525-9400.