Friday, November 8, 2013

Janice Arnold’s Palace Yurt

The Weekly Volcano, Nov. 7, 2013

Janice Arnold’s Palace Yurt at the Smithsonian in 2009 was a contemporary take on ancient Mongolian palace yurts. Designed specifically for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s 2009 Fashioning Felt exhibition in New York, it was made to fit the arched ceiling of the museum’s conservatory and filled the space like air in a balloon with elegantly crafted and draped sheets of handmade felt. Now Arnold has reconfigured the installation for the art gallery at The Evergreen State College. Working slowly with a team of assistants, it took Arnold most of the summer while the gallery was closed to complete the installation, which is one of the best gallery shows ever presented in that space.

Her Palace Yurt: Deconstructed is a massive, labor-intensive, excruciatingly detailed work of art that turns the gallery into a shrine and a mini-museum highlighting the history of traditional Mongolian felt making. The Mongolian yurts were places of worship built by people who sheared the sheep and make the felt by hand in a process that involved, among other interesting techniques, rolling it down the road by kicking it. Everything in the yurts has a history and a meaning.

Arnold, a fiber artist and TESC alumni who lives in Olympia and works out of a studio in Grand Mound, traveled to Mongolia to study the history, methods and spiritual meaning of felt and of palace yurts in order to reinterpret them for contemporary audiences. Faced with different limitations in space, particularly ceiling height, she could not duplicate the Smithsonian installation at Evergreen, but used all of the original parts reconfigured to fit in the different space, and she has included extensive photographs, drawings and schematics from the original — even including a specially made packing crate for the many arched metal rods the original yurt ceiling was tied to — along with videos and fabric samples viewers can touch to discover the tactile feel of the material. 
The walls, arches, and hanging ceiling are all made from massive sheets of hand-make felt. Placed in the front window is a beautiful screen made of reeds wrapped in wool.

Arnold and her assistants pull, soak, dry and roll the sheets of felt in a modern version of the methods made by the Mongolian villagers. Much of the work is done on the floor and outside on the ground. When working in the winter, crystals formed on the wet felt and she later duplicated that by attaching crystals to the felt walls in the gallery.

The completed yurt in the gallery and the separate wall pieces, drawings, videos, etc. combine to make a beautiful, startling and spiritually moving environment.

Visiting this installation should be worth the drive from anywhere in Western Washington. You may never get another chance to see anything like this. When you go, give yourself plenty of time to carefully study all of the support materials, including the videos. In many ways the entire installation is like a jigsaw puzzle. You put the pieces together in your by reading the information and coming to understand the process.
Janice Arnold will be at Evergreen to present a lecture Nov. 20 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Lecture Hall 1.

[The Evergreen State College Gallery, Palace Yurt: Deconstructed, Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed for lunch 1-1:30 p.m. Mon, Tue., Thurs., through Dec. 11, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Library 1st floor, Olympia]

Photos: Palace Yurt installation view (details). Photo by Bob Iyall

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