Home Historical art The Houston Museum offers a mind-blowing indoor art experience

The Houston Museum offers a mind-blowing indoor art experience


Sinking into the plush mound of a beanbag chair, I close my eyes as the hypnotic, layered music takes me – where? An echo chamber at the bottom of an Egyptian pyramid? A chaotic bazaar in Cairo? It’s cool and dark in the underground gallery of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, but time seems to ripple like a haze of heat waves between ancient and present.

Such is the charm of “Mariah Garnett: Dreamed This Gateway”, one of the most mind-blowing inner experiences of this blazing summer. On view until August 28, the exhibition features two opera video installations and an audio recording. This makes it as much a sonic adventure as it is a visual one.

In early 2020, when Garnett first visited CAMH to plan a show for this fall, she was also embarking on a new project inspired by the archives of her remarkable and enigmatic great-grandaunt Ruth Lynda Deyo, a pianist and American composer who died about 20 years before Garnett was born. When the museum had to postpone its exhibit, curator Rebecca Matalon and CAMH director Hesse McGraw switched gears and commissioned another work that would allow Garnett to expand on her new project.

It helps — well, a little — to know the backstory. Ruth Deyo, a child prodigy who performed on the international scene, moved to Cairo in 1924, at the age of 40. She spent the second half of her life there, literally bewitched by ancient Egyptian culture. Suffering from mental illness and embracing esoteric spirituality during the apocalyptic period between two world wars, she filled scrapbooks, diaries, and letters with visionary conversations she believed she had with multiple minds.

She also composed “The Diadem of Stars”, a three-act opera with a 700-page score (and a poetic libretto by her husband, a British diplomat) that was never fully produced. The “musical drama”, as Deyo called it, interprets the story of Egypt’s 18th dynasty – the era that gave birth to legendary rulers such as Queen Nefertiti and the pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, some of the spirits with whom Deyo communicated.

Deyo left archival trunks to his family when he died in 1960. Although some of them wanted to see history made simpler, to Garnett’s 21st century eyes it smacks of fetishism, colonialism and cultural appropriation. The archives are “only really important in the way they resonate now,” she said during a public talk with Matalon last month.

CAMH visitors can listen to the audio recording “I Was Just A Boy,” one of the works of “Mariah Garnett: Dreamed This Gateway,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Houston.

Sean Fleming

Garnett, who lives in Los Angeles, works in nebulous territory between documentary and experimental film, responding to historical material in a way that reflects the issues and concerns of the here and now. And on top of all the problems of a global pandemic, her “here and now” is heavily sensitive to racial and gender inclusion.

By chance, I started in the room that contains “The Pow’r of Life Is Love”, the 13-minute multi-channel video installation Garnett was working on in 2020. Part 1 contains a scene from Deyo’s opera , staged in a way she probably never imagined. Garnett used the cast to make a gesture of reparation: her singers are a pair of formidable and powerful young African-American talents, soprano Breanna Elyce Sinclairé, who is a transgender woman; and tenor Christopher Paul Craig. They wear contemporary formal attire on a bare stage except for a piano that almost suggests a third character, who could represent the ghost of Deyo.

When I watched it, I didn’t know Garnett’s intentionally nuanced casting, only that the two characters in the scene were lonely lovers yearning for each other. Throughout the poetic libretto, Sinclairé and Craig sing passionately about crossing a “bridge of dreams” over a stream of opals in a place where jewels hang like fruit from the trees. You can easily liken it to a depiction of pandemic isolation, located anywhere.

Part 2 of the video is more woo-woo, even campy. The singers are gone and we are in an early 20th century theater looking at a dramatically lit stone modeled after an ancient bust belonging to Deyo. She believed it contained spirits, although the original probably didn’t speak. Garnett’s Stone has an AI-generated voice, and she recites an entry from Deyo’s diary: Her spiritual lover (TAA, or Tutankhamun) assures her that her artistic struggles will be rewarded and that he loves her.

The show’s trippy sound piece, “I Was Just a Boy,” sits at one end of a larger screening room accessed by a curtained passageway. Put on the headphones, and you will be transported. Whether the journey takes you to a fever dream or to hell may depend on your appetite for vintage global and abstract contemporary music.

The theremin-fueled soundscape captivated me from the opening notes, keeping me captivated as it segues into a tremulous archival recording – an anti-colonial anthem by Egyptian Mounira El-Mahdiyya, who was a contemporary of Deyo – and then “I Was Just a Boy”, one of the new “Medium Songs” written for Garnett’s biggest commission.

The word “average” here refers to a person, not a size. The song’s lyrics came as a message from Tutankhamun that Garnett received through a medium she visited in Cairo as part of her research. Although she was skeptical of Deyo’s mysticism, she was quite curious to see what might happen if she could get in touch with her great-great-aunt’s spirit.

A scene from Mariah Garnett's video installation

A scene from Mariah Garnett’s video installation ‘The Pow’r of Life is Love’, featuring soprano Breanna Elyce Sinclairé and tenor Christopher Paul Craig.

Sean Fleming

The five-channel installation “Dreamed This Gateway” took me further into the reverie, despite being a deliberately unfussy contemporary production. Holland Andrews, a sensational American singer, songwriter and artist, specializes in language disintegration and vocal distortion. Andrews stands in front of a microphone in front of windows with a view of an overpass, singing hard-to-analyze lyrics, also layering electronic sound with a pedal. The ears float between chaos, dissonance and meditative moments.

The lyrics are taken from the diaries of Deyo and Garnett, with a song by playwright Raphael Khouri. They are provided in a small “Song Book” which includes further journal entries and interviews with Sinclairé and Craig.

When: 11am-6pm Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-9pm Thursday, until August 28
Where: Houston Museum of Contemporary Art, 5216 Montrose
Details: Free; 713-284-8250, camh.org

I preferred to let it appear abstract, also focusing on Garnett’s offbeat visuals, which switch between longer shots and close-ups of Andrews’ expressive, tattooed hands or intensely crumpled face. Sometimes all five screens in the room are synchronized; sometimes they are deliberately not.

Matalon, the curator, suggests that Garnett’s exhibit is partly about what it means to be a medium. “There is an implicit multiplicity, channeled into many voices, which in itself is a strange concept – what it means to always be multiple, never singular,” she adds.

Garnett and his collaborators—really all artists, if you think about it—are mediums; vessels that communicate through materials that can be as tangible as paint or as intangible as sound and movement.

At home, I delved deeper into the “Song Book” and settled on one of Deyo’s journal entries on the source of creativity. “The brain is alive with light and radiant energy, but few use etheric powers,” she wrote in 1938. “…Don’t think it’s madness. It’s knowledge the highest.

I’m glad Garnett listened and responded, and allowed us to go around.

Molly Glentzer is a Houston-area writer.