MYSTIC — Visitors to Mystic Seaport can now beam themselves to the Arctic.
Beginning Saturday, the public will be able to walk inside a pingo and virtually experience life in the Arctic during the international debut of “Murmur: Arctic Realities,” an exhibit that opens in the Thompson Exhibition Building for a three-month run.
A pingo is a hill of ice that takes centuries to form and is found only in the highest latitudes of the Arctic. Mystic’spingo — an intricately-carved 15-foot-by-38-foot-by-42-foot structure — was designed by Seattle-based artist John Grade. Grade — who spent time walking on pingos in the Noatak National Preserve a few years back when he traveled to the Alaskan Arctic as part of Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab residency for artists — teamed up with the Seaport’s New Media Artist Reilly Donovan to create a mixed-reality experience for visitors.
Visitors will not only get to see the pingo’s impressive scale, but they’ll be able to walk inside the sculpture, which has walls that open and close, mimicking the pingo’s life-cycle. Using Microsoft’sHoloLens Mixed Reality technology, visitors can wear wireless HoloLens headsets, allowing them to see themselves within a holographic representation — one using visual images and spatialized sound of a precise geographic location 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“We’ve rearranged expectations for what you can find at Mystic Seaport,” said Nicholas R. Bell, senior vice president for curatorial affairs for the Seaport. “We are introducing our audiences to contemporary maritime culture. There is nothing else like this in the country.”
“The Arctic is the largest undisturbed watershed in the United States… it’s the most extreme American marine environment and it’s changing due to unprecedented environmental change,” explained Bell, who worked with Grade on another environment-themed project when he was curator of Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “John has redefined the way we can experience the earth and its connection to the water.”
When Grade traveled to the Arctic and trudged through the bog-like frozen tundra, he was armed with a rifle for protection, and an inflatable raft to cross unexpected patches of waters, Bell said.
The title, “Murmur,” was chosen for a few reasons. In addition to evoking the sound of Arctic wind, it also forms a part of the word “murmuration,” a word that describes the shapes made by flocks of Arctic birds in flight that Grade observed on his travels through the permafrost.
The installation will provide an experience in which people can virtually explore the interior of a pingo’s ice core and the unusual textures, flora and fauna of the land form.
“I thought it would be very interesting to compare these two phenomena that happen in such different time scales,” Grade said, “one so ephemeral and the other so slow. To try to put a viewer inside each of those things, which is a place none of us literally are ever going to go. What would it feel like, merging them together?”
On Wednesday afternoon, the fragrant aroma of fresh-cut Alaskan yellow cedar filled the Collins Gallery of the exhibition hall where Grade and a team of women and men were busy completing the enormous floor-to-ceiling structure that resembled a gigantic black erector-set spider with slabs of Swiss cheese on its back. Some were on Sky Jacks near the ceiling, others were fastening pieces of the sculpture together with zip ties and duct tape.
Grade designed the sculpture to simulate a pock-marked pingo in Alaska’sNoatak National Preserve, said Bell. Grade and a team of 20 artisans created the sculpture in his Seattle studio over a five-month period.
Grade, a Minneapolis native who studied at New York’s Pratt Institute, finds inspiration in the changing geological and biological forms and systems found in nature. The recipient of the 2010 Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Tiffany Foundation Award, three Andy Warhol Foundation Grant Awards, and a number of other prestigious awards, Grade is known for his immersive sculptural installations. In 2017, his giant tree artwork, Middle Fork, was on display at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. More than 2,000 people worked on the enormous wooden sculpture.
The Mystic exhibition is being staged in collaboration with Anchorage Museum, where it will permanently reside following its tour.
“This is an experience more than an exhibition,” Museum President Steve White said. “Given the capacity of the new Collins Gallery, we had the opportunity to think of exhibitions that could capitalize on the space and to embrace non-traditional, contemporary work. ‘Murmur’ will be unlike anything we have ever shown at the museum.”
“Mystic Seaport is a winter destination, too,” added Bell. “It is now a venue for all seasons… for January, February, and March as well as June, July and August.”
“Murmur: Arctic Realities” is open through Earth Day, April 22, during regular museum hours. In addition to the exhibition itself, there are scheduled talks by both Grade and Donovan, the opportunity to take a yoga class with renowned instructor Coral Brown within the exhibition, and other programs related to the piece.
Visit mysticseaport.org/calendar/ for the full schedule.
Fans can even use the hashtags #wearethemurmur and #arcticrealities to join the digital murmuration on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
For ticket information, visit mysticseaport.org.